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Richest city, stingiest too

A top government official admitted to HT that the state?s definition of who?s poor hinges unabashedly on how much foodgrain it receives from the Centre.

india Updated: Jun 21, 2006 01:01 IST

When there’s work, Dayabai Kamble, a widow and ragpicker from the shanty town of Govandi in eastern Mumbai earns about Rs 60 per day. That’s Rs 1,800 for Kamble’s family of three.

You would think Kamble falls in the state’s definition of being poor.

Not quite. At Rs 1,250 per month, the government of India’s richest city has perhaps the stingiest definition of Below Poverty Line (BPL) nationwide.

That’s why the state can confidently say all is well with its systems. That’s also why thousands like Kamble don’t qualify for the state’s Targeted Public Distribution System (TPDS) subsidy net.

A top government official admitted to HT that the state’s definition of who’s poor hinges unabashedly on how much foodgrain it receives from the Centre.

Plus, the official definition of poverty is made by the rural development department. So, there’s no distinction between the rural and urban poor.

In 1997-98, the rural development department defined the poverty line at Rs 20,000 per year. “Under this definition, we would have to cover over 1.13 crore poor households. But, we had a central subsidy to cover only 65 lakh families, so we decided to arrive at smaller figure, Rs 15,000 per year and selected only the poorest of poor families,” admitted Jayraj Phatak, rural development secretary, who till recently headed the food and civil supplies department.

So, if the state is serious about getting subsidised food to the poor, it should revise the poverty line, said experts.

The last time the state appointed a committee to mull the poverty line was in 2002. Nothing got done.

Food and civil supplies minister Sunil Tatkare said a request to raise the poverty line from Rs 15,000 to Rs 25,000 — for subsidised foodgrain — was pending with the Centre. But why can’t the state spend its own money?

“I’ll think of putting up a proposal before the cabinet,” he said, but implied it was a long shot. “We are already spending Rs 300 crore for distribution and transportation of foodgrain.”

“Others like Kerala and Tamil Nadu have stuck to criteria for poverty line that is in excess of the Centre’s estimate of poor. The excess families are covered through state finances,” said Leena Joshi, of Rationing Kruti Samiti.

Joshi was one of the activists who had given recommendations to the 2002 panel: that included considering not just income but water availability, organised employment to define poverty. “The committee did nothing,” she said.

The state’s priorities are best explained by a top government source: “If we spend more money on food subsidies, where will we get the money to finish irrigation projects?” On Monday, the CM announced that the state would raise Rs 16,000 crore for irrigation projects — announced hastily by politicians but never finished.