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Lost their appetite

Minutes after the Indian Premier League 3 final match ended, IPL chief Lalit Modi was suspended from his post. So far, the scandalous exposures of a massive scam appear only to be the tip of the iceberg, writes Sitaram Yechury.

india Updated: Apr 27, 2010 08:13 IST

Minutes after the Indian Premier League 3 final match ended, IPL chief Lalit Modi was suspended from his post. So far, the scandalous exposures of a massive scam appear only to be the tip of the iceberg. Parliament continues to be rocked by the demand for a Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC) to investigate this scam. The IPL is turning out to be a savage expression of ‘crony capitalism’. The prime minister, on several occasions, had decried that India can ill-afford ‘crony capitalism’. His sincerity will be tested on this score by the government’s acceptance, or otherwise, of constituting a JPC.

Meanwhile, various parts of the country are today experiencing a nationwide hartal called by 13 Left and secular Opposition parties protesting against the relentless rise in the prices of all essential commodities. The contrast between the IPL and below poverty line (BPL) India cannot be more stark. The people’s mounting anger at their economic hardships continues with the inflation rate that stands at 9.89 per cent. It is way ahead of the Reserve Bank of India’s revised target of 8.5 per cent. Worse is the fact that food inflation stands at 17.22 per cent.

There is a newfound euphoria regarding the so-called ‘recovery’ of the Indian economy overcoming global recession. This is based on the fact that the index of industrial production (IIP) grew at 17.6 per cent in December 2009, 16.7 per cent in January 2010 and 15.1 per cent in February.

Notwithstanding the low base of last year due to global recession, these may appear to be healthy rates of growth. There is, however, a very important fact hidden behind these aggregate figures. Within this high IIP growth rate is the fact that consumer durables (automobiles, refrigerators, TVs, etc) grew by 29.9 per cent while consumer non-durables (mainly food and other articles of daily consumption) grew by a mere 2.3 per cent. This is for the month of February 2010. For the year 2009-10, the average growth of consumer non-durables was just 1.6 per cent as compared to 25.75 per cent for consumer durables.

It is universally accepted that the consumption of non-durable items is driven by low and middle income consumers, who spend a bulk of their money on food and not so much on consumer durables. The credit rating agency, Information and Credit Rating Agency (Icra), states in its latest report that “inflation has affected the purchasing power of the lower income group, especially food inflation, and that is reflecting in the deceleration of growth in the consumer non-durables sector”. This clearly shows that the vast majority of the people continue to suffer due to this relentless rise in the prices of essential commodities.

Under these circumstances, it was widely expected that the UPA 2 government would use the much tom-tommed National Food Security Act as its new mascot. Perhaps, the absence of the Left’s pressure (unlike UPA 1 where this pressure led to the implementation of the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme) is preventing this government from implementing its own election pledges: “The Indian National Congress pledges to enact a Right to Food law that guarantees access to sufficient food for all people, particularly the most vulnerable sections of society.”

Echoing this, the president, in her first address to the joint Parliament session after the UPA 2 government came to power, said: “My government proposes to enact a new law — the National Food Security Act — that will provide a statutory basis for a framework which assures food security for all.” The draft of such an Act that’s currently circulating neither guarantees ‘access’ nor does it provide ‘sufficient food’. There is very little for ‘all’ people and nothing for the ‘most vulnerable sections’. The National Advisory Council, recently resurrected under Sonia Gandhi’s leadership, seems to have prevailed to ensure 35 kg of foodgrains per BPL family per month as against the initially proposed 25 kg.

UPA 2, however, is failing to reach a consensus on the very number of BPL families that exist. The Planning Commission currently estimates it at 65.2 million. However, the Suresh Tendulkar Committee, appointed by the Planning Commission, estimates the BPL population as 83.2 million. In contrast, the number of BPL cards issued by state governments totals 108.68 million. Clearly, if food security is to be seen in the limited scope of providing only foodgrains, even then they should reach at least 108.68 million people. The National Commission for Enterprises in the Unorganised Sector has estimated that at least 77 per cent of our population survives on less than Rs 20 a day. This may be the closest approximation of ‘Real India’. Food security in its complete sense, however, must embrace nutrition security — apart from other aspects determining the quality of life.

Given the Indian reality of an unacceptably high maternal mortality and child malnutrition— at 46 per cent (twice the rate in sub-Saharan Africa) — nothing short of a universal public distribution system (PDS) would be sufficient to change the situation. Every adult resident — not family — of the country must be covered by the PDS with entitlements of 14 kg of cereals per month at Rs 2 per kg, 1.5 kg of pulses at Rs 20 per kg and 800 gms of cooking oil at Rs 35 per kg with children getting half the entitlements. Also, ration cards should be made in the name of the female head of the household. The National Food Security Act must contain these entitlements if the aim is to assure food security for all. If thousands of crores of rupees can be made to feed the IPL, then, surely, resources can — and must — be found to guarantee food security for BPL India.

Sitaram Yechury is CPI(M) Politburo member and Rajya Sabha MP The views expressed by the author are personal

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