The Planning Commission's poverty straightjacket is but one of a series of obstacles faced by “aspirants” to the BPL status.

Nothing illustrates the absurdity of current food policies more poignantly than the plight of Dablu Singh's family in Latehar district, Jharkhand. About two years ago Dablu, a young Adivasi who survived mainly from casual labour, fell from a roof at work and broke his back. He is paralysed for life and needs intensive care. His wife Sumitra looks after him, their daughter, and a small baby (aside from a few goats and hens), and is unable to work for wages. The family is on the verge of starvation.

“Below Poverty Line” (BPL) families in Jharkhand are entitled to 35 kg of rice per month at Re.1 per kg. This is a great relief for these families, but Dablu Singh's family doesn't have a BPL card.

Meanwhile, the godowns of the Food Corporation of India (FCI) are bursting at the seams yet again. The FCI is lumbered with about 60 million tonnes of wheat and rice, and doesn't know where to put the excess stocks. Some want to export them, others want to brew them, others still want to privatise the FCI and be done. Expanding storage capacity is routinely offered as a solution — but how about distributing some of the excess grain?

There is no dearth of families like Dablu's. According to the National Sample Survey, about half of all poor families in rural India do not have a BPL card. Why not cover the rest and distribute the food?

Dablu Singh's only hope is that his plight has been noticed. Soon after his accident, he attracted the attention of local journalists, and later on, of the District Collector, local MLA, and others. Everyone agreed that he should get a BPL card, by way of immediate relief.

True to the Jharkhand government's “gesture administration”, the District Collector instructed the BDO to do the needful. From then on, various officers (BDO, SDO, BSO, so-and-so) passed the buck to each other for a few months. Dablu's well-wishers pleaded his case all the way to Ranchi and even Delhi. Nothing doing — one year down the line, Dablu still didn't have a BPL card.

When the Commissioners of the Supreme Court swung into action and took the District Collector to task, he finally admitted that the entire district administration was powerless to give a BPL card to Dablu without striking someone else off the BPL list. He might as well have said it from the beginning — but that's another matter. The point is, the district has a “quota” of BPL cards, so no one can be inducted unless someone else is dropped. Someone quietly suggested that, since Dablu had become a VIP of sorts, he could perhaps be “adjusted” by removing someone else at random.

There rested the matter a few weeks ago, more than a year after a whole team of well-wishers (stretching from Latehar to Delhi) joined forces for Dablu. One shudders to think how many tonnes of grain putrefied in the FCI godowns in the meantime. Anyway, the local Block Supply Officer finally managed to identify a sacrificial lamb: someone on the BPL list in Dablu's village had died, and so had his wife, and their son already had a separate BPL card, so it seemed alright to strike that name from the list and accommodate Dablu. It took just another 10-15 days to complete the job — Dablu finally has a BPL card.

But there is a catch: Dablu may be deprived of his BPL card very soon. This is because the BPL list is supposed to be redone after the ongoing BPL Census (alias “Socio-Economic and Caste Census”) is completed. And the methodology of this Census is such that Dablu's family meets only one of the seven “deprivation indicators” that make up the BPL score. With a score of one on a scale of zero to seven, Dablu is almost certain to be excluded again.

And just to make it a little harder for Dablu to sneak into the exclusive club, the Planning Commission has made it clear (in its recent “striptease affidavit” to the Supreme Court) that the BPL list is expected to shrink over time, in line with official poverty estimates based on the government's measly poverty line of — roughly — Rs.25 per person per day in rural areas. This is what Dablu actually needs, as a bare minimum, for essential medical care alone.

Many States have rebelled against the Planning Commission's poverty straightjacket, and expanded the Public Distribution System (PDS) well beyond the BPL list. Had Dablu lived in Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, or even Chhattisgarh, he might not have gone through this ordeal. In Tamil Nadu, the PDS is universal — everyone has a ration card. Andhra Pradesh has rejected the BPL framework in favour of an “exclusion approach”, whereby everyone is eligible except those who meet well-defined exclusion criteria such as having a government job. Chhattisgarh, for its part, still uses an inclusion approach, but the inclusion criteria are quite broad (e.g. all SC/ST households are eligible) and the PDS covers nearly 80 per cent of the rural population. Further, the list of ration cards is regularly verified and updated.

In areas like rural Latehar, the case for a universal PDS is overwhelming. Indeed, except for a few exploiters (e.g. contractors and moneylenders), there are no rich people there — most of them move to urban areas, if only because they want decent schooling facilities for their children. In the villages, almost everyone is either poor or vulnerable to poverty. Further, the local administration is too inept, corrupt and exploitative to conduct a credible BPL survey or any sort of identification exercise. In these circumstances, a universal PDS makes a lot of sense.

The proposed National Food Security Act (NFSA) is an opportunity to end the BPL nightmare, and ensure that a family like Dablu's is entitled to a ration card as a matter of right. Unfortunately, the official draft of the NFSA perpetuates the entire BPL approach under a new name. Meanwhile, the government has lifted the ban on exports of wheat and rice, to “solve” the food crisis.

(The author is Visiting Professor at the Department of Economics, University of Allahabad.)

More In: Comment | Opinion