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“Delink food entitlements from poverty line”

In a significant move, prominent economists on Monday made a forceful plea to delink food entitlements from the “faulty” poverty measures put out by the Planning Commission.

Asserting that under-nutrition was much more widespread in the country than income poverty “however defined,” the economists sought restoration of the universal Public Distribution System (PDS) “as the best way forward'' in combating hunger and poverty.

“This is not only feasible within the available fiscal space of the Centre, but also must be a policy priority in the backdrop of high and persistent food inflation,'' 27 economists from across the country said in a statement issued here.

Their appeal is significant in view of the fact that not only has the Planning Commission come in for severe criticism for validating the poverty line arrived at by the Suresh Tendulkar Committee but also because the Centre has recently put out for public comments its draft National Food Security Bill that does not envisage universal PDS.

Declaring the official national poverty line at Rs. 32 and Rs. 26 per capita per day for urban and rural populations respectively as “unacceptable benchmarks to measure the extent of poverty in the country,” they said it was counter-productive to link these with basic entitlements of people, especially access to food.

“While academic debates can continue on the appropriate measure of poverty, its extent and whether it is decreasing over time, we strongly believe that it is unacceptable and counter-productive to link the official poverty estimates to basic entitlements of the people,” the statement said.

Universal PDS

“It is also widely recognised that the targeted PDS introduced since 1997, has done more harm than good by creating divisions even among the poor and has led to massive errors of exclusion. Recent evidence clearly establishes that States which have moved towards near-universalisation of the PDS have performed much better in increasing offtake and reducing leakages,” it added.

Speaking to The Hindu , Jayati Ghosh of the Jawaharlal Nehru University said poverty lines have been arrived at different levels by various committees depending upon the range of indicators that each looked at. However, according to her, poverty in the country had not come down in the way the official figures project.

On the provision of social services, she said there should be the exclusion rather than the inclusion criterion and a cap.

The signatories to the statement include the former West Bengal Finance Minister Ashok Mitra; the former Minister and Chairman of 1977 Task Force on Poverty Estimation Yoginder K. Alagh; Director of Institute of Development Studies, Kolkata, Amiya Kumar Bagchi; Chairman of the Indian Council of Social Science Research and the former UGC Chairman, S.K. Thorat; the former Vice-Chairman of Kerala State Planning Board Prabhat Patnaik; Finance Commission Member Atul Sarma; the former Planning Commission Member G.S. Bhalla; Professor at the Madras Institute of Development Studies S. Subramanian; Professor at the Delhi School of Economics Pulin Nayak; National Commission for Enterprises in the Unorganised Sector Member Ravi Srivastava; Director of Indira Gandhi Institute for Development Research, Mumbai, S. Mahendra Dev; Director of Institute for Social and Economic Change, Bangalore, R. S. Deshpande; Professor at the Indian Statistical Institute, Kolkata, Madhura Swaminathan; Director of Institute of Development Studies, Jaipur, Surjit Singh; Professor at New School University, New York, Sanjay Reddy, Dr. Ghosh, and others.

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