India’s entitlement dilemmas

India’s entitlement dilemmas

Targeted approaches to delivering food and other goods often attract criticism from different quarters. Exclusion of deserving individuals and inclusion of those who are better off have marred programmes such as the Public Distribution System (PDS), so much so that universalization has been recommended as a panacea to this problem.

This can ruin India’s public finances. This realization is prompting another careful look at targeting. A Mint story on Thursday reported how the Union rural development ministry has launched a pilot project to refine the methods of counting the poor across the country. The actual census of below poverty line (BPL) families is to begin sometime next year.

The fruit of the pilot project and the census—a better BPL count—is in marked contrast to the recommendations of another body, the influential National Advisory Council (NAC).

NAC favours universalization of entitlements. Put plainly, it favours the abolition of the BPL and above poverty line distinction. This implies an extensive enlargement of the 35kg at 3 per kg foodgrain entitlement to all families. NAC members such as Jean Dreze have argued that targeting is “unreliable" and “divisive". Other members have expressed similar sentiments. This is clearly unrealistic. Universalizing the PDS is bound to be very expensive. That, however, has not deterred NAC from recommending partial, but increasingly progressive, universalization. Food security, however, is not a distribution problem alone: Enhancing agricultural production is key to ensuring sustainable solutions to the problem. While much noise is made about enhancing the level of public investment in agriculture, in real terms that investment continues to fall.

That makes the rural development ministry’s approach attractive. Minus production enhancement efforts, better targeting through well-designed counting methods is the optimal, if second best, option. As the Mint story detailed, surveyors spent four days in a village in Ambala district of Haryana to find the right answers to questions such as who is poor. Why are some poor excluded from BPL lists while others are included? There is no doubt that local power equations often make nonsense of poverty definitions, but careful surveys can make a difference. Hopefully, the same care will be devoted to the countrywide BPL census.

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