New Delhi: The number of people claiming benefits reserved for the poor using the so-called below the poverty line (BPL) card in some states, such as Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh, exceeds the total number of households.

In other words, there are more BPL-card-holding families than the total number of households in the state. And that means that people who need the government’s assistance—such as low-cost grain—don’t get their fair share of it.

To be sure, this is not a new trend, but the latest data (as on 31 March 2009) with the food ministry indicates that the situation has worsened. This is also significant in the context of the government’s food security agenda. The implementation of the Food Security Bill without a clean-up would imply large-scale leakages.

The BPL card is used to obtain benefits under the government’s poverty alleviation programmes as well as access to cheap foodgrains from the public distribution system (PDS), subsidized health insurance and scholarships.

According to data sourced from the food ministry, in 10 states at least one in two households held a BPL card; this includes those people covered under the Antyodaya Anna Yojana, reserved for the poorest of the poor. In the case of Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh, the proportion of BPL card holders to total number of households in the state was 142.83% and 120.20%, respectively. The number of BPL families, at the national and the state level, is estimated by the Planning Commission based on surveys conducted every five years by the National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO). Based on the 61st round of NSSO, the Planning Commission classified 28.30% of rural households as BPL.

However, state governments do not restrict their benefits to households classified as being BPL by the commission and often issue additional BPL cards. Analysts say this explains why there are more BPL cards than households.

“But what happens is that there is only limited stocks. When you have ended up issuing more BPL cards then it implies that you cut back on allocations," says N.C. Saxena, who chaired the committee set up by the rural development ministry for the identification of BPL households in rural India. The other issue, according to another expert, is cards for households that aren’t exactly poor. “It’s a well known fact that in a lot of places the number of BPL cards exceed the population which suggests the issue of bogus cards," said Y.K. Alagh, agricultural economist and former member of the Planning Commission.

According to the justice D.P. Wadhwa committee report on PDS for Bihar, while the Union government fixed the total number of BPL families at 6.5 million, a 2007 survey conducted by the government of Bihar estimated it to be 15 million. Such inflation comes at a price, as the Wadhwa committee pointed out.

The Central government allots foodgrains for 6.5 million families at the rate of 35kg per family per month.

“In order to meet the requirement of 15 million BPL families, the state government (Bihar) has reduced the allocation to 25kg per family per month."

To be sure, the state meets the additional demand, but clearly, in an attempt to balance things, it doesn’t provide as much grain as prescribed by the central government.

Not surprisingly, the empowered group of ministers (eGoM), which was set up to draft the food security legislation, has linked the grant of the entitlement with a reform of PDS. In its minutes, reviewed by Mint, the eGoM decided: “The law should make it mandatory for state governments to take up reforms for effective delivery of entitled foodgrains to the targeted families."

The Saxena committee, too, had sought to streamline poverty identification norms to eliminate misuse. The criteria identified for automatic exclusion includes: having one family member working in the so-called formal economy, families that have double the district average of agricultural land held per household; owning a motorized two-wheeler, borewell or mechanized farm equipment; and paying income tax.

“People having fancy television sets, mobile phones, motorcycles, tractors, etc., should not be given BPL cards. But where is the political will to do that?," added Alagh.

According to R.S. Srivastava, a professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University who also worked with the National Commission for Enterprises in the unorganized sector, there is a middle path between serving the needs of the poor and also addressing the needs of the not-so-poor.

“With states like Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh almost universalizing PDS, the subsidy burden on the states is getting high. So, while the especially vulnerable sector be given special protection, the scheme for not so poor should be made so unattractive that they voluntary opt out of it. For this, the difference in the grains price through PDS (or the not-so-poor) and the open market should be considerably narrowed so the arbitrage is not high," said Srivastava.

Tracking Hunger is a joint effort of the Hindustan Times and Mint to track, investigate and report every aspect of the struggle to rid India of hunger. If you have any suggestions, write to us at thehungerproject