If we take into account the starvation deaths in India, then Delhi chief minister Sheila Dikshit's comments would not be seen as such a joke.
We are ignoring the reality to project what we believe, perhaps rightly, is her fictional notion of how much it takes for a poor family to live.
Here is what she said:
“In Rs. 600, he would get dal, rice and wheat...A family of five can easily complete their needs.”
This Rs 600 is a monthly cash subsidy under the Dilli Anna Shri Yojna, a food security measure, to be transferred directly into Aadhaar-linked bank accounts of the senior-most female members of two lakh poor families.
Ms. Dikshit is probably not in touch with the ground reality, a term we like to flaunt, but this money is not a replacement for other options. Just think about the statistics and you will see that this scheme should have been introduced long ago.
A cursory look around reveals:
"The International Food Policy Research Institute's 2011 Global Hunger Index, it ranks 67 out of 81 countries and has more than 200 million food-insecure people, the most in the world."
We produce so much food that we can export it. A good deal of it, though, ends up rotting in warehouses. Why is it not used to feed the poor and children who die of malnourishment?
Years ago when Tamil Nadu introduced the mid-day meal scheme during MGR’s tenure as chief minister, it came in for criticism. Partly because his then PR in charge was Ms. Jayalalitha, now the CM, and it was thought to be populist.
We need to slacken our righteousness where populist moves are concerned, if they benefit some people. The two lakh who will gain from this Rs 600 stipend cannot be the end-of-the-road vote bank. Besides, those in charge of providing essential food, shelter, clothes often siphon off those funds.
The newly-minted Aam Aadmi Party chief Arvind Kejriwal was among the first to criticise the scheme:
“Jab unhein aata dal ka mol hi nahin maloom toh woh logon ke liye kya karengey? (If she does not know the price of essentials, how will she do anything for the people?) A cash subsidy can never be a substitute for rations. A Rs-600 subsidy cannot solve anything. Inflation is not a static phenomenon. The subsidy is almost like a sop before the assembly polls. It is the job of the government to organize a healthy public distribution system and not somehow fulfil its obligation by giving a cash subsidy.”
I don’t see how a politician keeping track on prices is a prerequisite for solving issues. This may be a sop, but as I already mentioned it does not mean the beneficiaries should sit with this and not seek other opportunities. If we wait to address the issue of unemployment or public distribution, then we miss out on the immediate needs of a few. Mr. Kejriwal probably is not aware that ration shops sell the lowest grade available as mid-grade to those who can afford it. He might like to peek into the grains to see just how bad they are and how often they are sold in the black market.
Harsh Mander, special commissioner to the Supreme Court on the right to food said:
“The government's disconnect with ground realities is self-evident. Even a homeless person ends up spending Rs 100 to Rs 150 for his daily needs. It is not that the poor are just looking for handouts. They are hard working and desire a life of dignity. A labourer works hard to earn a living. It is the duty of the government to ensure that labour laws are implemented. Same is the case with the PDS system.”
Is he serious? A homeless person spends 100 odd bucks a day? On what? There are no overheads, so what is the expenditure breakup? Such flashy statements do more harm than good.
No one is denying that the poor should be granted a life of dignity as much as any other citizen. But let us not romanticise poverty. Take a look at the beggars around. Try offering them stuff you take in your doggy bag and it is likely to be rejected. If begging is not seeking handouts, then what is? Has anyone attempted buying knick-knacks and asking a beggar to go sell these and earn? I have. It does not work. This does not get enough money. Of course, there is a begging racket run by a mafia and many of them have no choice. Look at the crowds of them outside restaurants near places of worship and you will realise how they feed off the guilt of devotees. I am quite certain that they’d gladly take the Rs 600.
Is this money enough to feed a family of five? The obvious answer is, no. But think about those who go hungry and you will accept that this is a small step. I am setting aside all political considerations for now.
The fact that the senior-most female member gets it in her account is another positive step. This will ensure it is not hogged by the men, or at least she has the power to assert her right over it. If some NGOs join in and educate them on innovative use of funds then, say, the wheat can be used to sell ready-made chapattis; that will bring in additional income.
I can give an example of how community cooking too can help. This was in a village off Mahad in Maharashtra. It had no electricity. Late evening, two huge vessels were simmering with dal while some women were rolling rotis. It was winter and quite nippy, so the firewood kept them warm. They ate on plantain leaves, so they saved on washing dishes.
If a group of people collect their respective Rs 600 and replicate this, it might work at least to assuage to some extent the problem of their hunger. The Planning Commission's India Human Development Report states, “If India is not in a state of famine, it is quite clearly in a state of chronic hunger.”
But, everybody wants to be Mother Teresa. If we can contribute as little as Rs 6 a month each for such schemes, instead of signing petitions and one-off donation drives, we might eventually make huge strides.
Getting Paris Hilton to visit an orphanage is worse than doing a taking digs at an Indian politician. I fail to understand why opposition groups, or even activists, cry foul only when certain pro-active schemes are introduced. Why do they not raise these issues all the time, if they are so grounded and would be cognisant that this is a huge ongoing problem? Why is corruption a bigger plank than dignity of the poor, then? This too is politics.
Poverty has fed many politicians, right from the time of Mahatma Gandhi. If it also manages to feed the poor, it is worthwhile to make it popular instead of ranting about populism.
(c) Farzana Versey
(c) Farzana Versey