The blanks in India’s new poverty line

West Bengal’s hunger zone just brought more hungry people into the state’s protection. So why are more on the brink of destitution than ever before, asks Avijit Ghosal.
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Updated on Apr 26, 2010 12:31 AM IST
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Hindustan Times | By Avijit Ghosal, Purulia

For most of her 80 years, through the partition of Bengal and its transition into emerging India, Feti Singh Sardar has had an unchanging constant: Hunger.

Her father, a village watchman, never had the money to get Sardar, dressed in a seven-feet remnant of what was once a blue saree, married. But, in the dusty village of Ghoratika, about 400 km to the west of Kolkata, hunger never left her.

She could possibly access the multi-billion dollar social-security programmes on which India will spend Rs 1,18,000 crore this fiscal, but for that Sardar must visit the Dhadka panchayat office.

She cannot. It takes her 10 days to walk the 7 km, another 10 days to return. Three years ago, she slipped on the long walk and hurt her waist.

“Kichu khete dibi baba (Can you give me something to eat)?” she said with a groan as she lay in a charpoy in a thatched hut with a couple of empty vessels. Her diet: starch rice once, or less, a day.

This is Bandowan block, designated by a 2002-study as the most food-insecure block in West Bengal.

“I have no card, red or green,” she said, referring to official documents that would recognise her as living below the poverty line in West Bengal and allow her access to subsidised food. On most days, she survives on starch and salt that, on lucky days, turns into starch rice, which her brother gives her.

Sardar is one of lakhs in Purulia living on starch rice once a day — on a good day. Many survive on starch and salt, indicating the depth of poverty in India and why India’s new poverty line, despite increasing the number of the poor by 100 million to more than 400 million last week, is a contentious issue, now being monitored by the Prime Minister’s Office.

“We’ll definitely arrange something for her today itself,” said the apparently embarrassed panchayat up-pradhan (deputy village chief) Gurupada Tudu, a local leader of ruling Communist Party of India (Marxist).

Sardar was taken by the party to vote in the 2008 panchayat polls. She doesn’t know the name of her country, nor the state.
In Anandabazar village in Puncha block, about 40 km from Ghoratika, Chepi Mudi, about 40 and reduced to a walking skeleton, lies on the ground groaning from constant stomach ache. Driven by hunger and pain (Balangir symptoms) Mudi tried to kill herself two years ago.

She doesn’t have a card either. The complaint is shared by dozens in her village.

Here’s the irony: The effort to revise BPL lists, so that people like Sardar and Mudi can be included, is a three-stage process that will exclude more people than it will include, as HT found out during a trip to the spot.

The process of exclusion starts from the panchayat office, where villagers must go to get application forms. Villagers are both unaware of their rights and already mostly bitter about panchayats.

Two four-page forms, one for each individual, the other for the family, with 25 multiple-choice questions, are handed out. Those simply listed as officially literate find it hard to comprehend the forms.

“We have advised the panchayat office to help if anybody has difficulty in filling them up,” said Riten Roychowdhury, additional executive officer, Purulia zilla parishad.

After claiming for years that there is no starvation in West Bengal, the government has inserted a section in the application forms that asks the respondent whether he/she gets to eat less than once a day for most parts of the year.
Those who eventually manage to fill the form and submit it are screened, so the not-so-needy are weeded out at the block level. This stage often screens out many deserving applicants.

Those who get the coveted cards must then negotiate the ration dealer. In Purulia, as in most other parts of Bengal, and India, the ration dealer is accused of shortchanging beneficiaries. The Planning Commission estimates that 58 per cent of subsidised foodgrain never reaches them.

“With an efficient enrolment and distribution process, there shouldn’t be hunger and starvation,” said Uttam Gayen, Purulia representative of Paschimbanga Khet Majur Samiti, a body led by Anuradha Talwar, advisor on right to food recognised by the Supreme Court.

“There is no shortage of supply to the 1,083 ration dealers in Purulia,” says Niranjan Mahato, secretary, district ration dealers association.

The rice sold at Rs 2 per kg for BPL families and the poorest, covered by the Antoday Anna Yojana, is sold at Rs 9 to cardholders above the poverty line (APL) and Rs 16 in the local markets.

“This difference is a huge incentive for the dealer to divert foodgrains from the BPL to other markets,” said Gayen.
Moreover, very few villagers have their ration cards with them. Most have deposited it with the dealers.

Mahato, a sympathiser of the ruling Communist Party of India (Marxist), denied the allegation. “Dealers don’t retain cards at all,” he said.

Roychowdhury admits the problem isn’t new. “Shop-level monitoring committees were set up in 2008 at the panchayat level,” he said. But like most measures they have remained on paper.

“The Supreme Court has directed ration shops have to be open five and a half days a week. But compliance is often at half that duration or less,” said K.P. Singh Deo, Trinamool Congress leader of Purulia.

HT found the Rajnoagarh ration shop in Puncha block shut during business hours of Thursday morning. Anandabazar residents complained in a body that their cards are retained by this dealer.

“We have completed the BPL list revision process,” said Avanindra Singh, district magistrate.

Theoretically, that should raise social-security cover from 30 per cent to 47 per cent of the rural population of Purulia.

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