SC report findings a setback to Sonia’s anti-hunger project

SC report findings a setback to Sonia’s anti-hunger project

New Delhi: It’s being hailed as independent India’s biggest, boldest effort to free the nation of hunger, but Congress president Sonia Gandhi’s latest project falls short of drastic changes suggested by a judicial committee.

A Supreme Court report released last week recommends that every Indian with an income below Rs100 a day be considered poor, be eligible for official subsidies, including 35kg of foodgrain per family.

The report—written by former Supreme Court justice D.P. Wadhwa after nationwide investigations—dramatically widens the definition of poverty, adding around 500 million people to the ranks of the poor and will demand around Rs82,100 crore over and above the Rs1,18,535 crore that the government hopes to spend fighting poverty in 2010-11.

The Wadhwa report comes at a time when the Union cabinet is likely to clear this week the seminal Food Security Bill, 2010, with distinctly weaker provisions, before placing it in Parliament: The Wadhwa report could become law if the Supreme Court accepts it in hearings slated for next month.

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Based on such reports, the Supreme Court has virtually taken over India’s hunger policy for the past nine years, passing at least 50 orders in what is now one of the most remarkable cases of judicial intervention in the world—a public interest litigation commonly called the Right to Food case.

The case’s counsel, Colin Gonsalves, alleges that the government is “rushing through" the Food Security Bill so it can stop being overseen by the Supreme Court. “They are trying to sabotage and undercut this case," he said. “The intention is to sabotage the proceedings in the Supreme Court."

A draft of the Food Security Bill—cleared last week by a group of ministers headed by finance minister Pranab Mukherjee—proposes to provide 25kg of rice or wheat to poor families at subsidized rates, but remains ambiguous on who would be counted as poor. “Guidelines for identification of BPL (below the poverty line) families would be issued by the Central government," says the draft, a copy of which is available with the Hindustan Times.

“I would call this (the new Bill) a Food Insecurity Act," said Utsa Patnaik, a professor at New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University and a leading agricultural economist, referring to the 25kg of wheat per family fixed by the draft Food Bill.

Patnaik said the Congress president’s intentions were noble, but the government was trying to statistically pare the number of poor and foodgrain required, so it could limit the money needed.

Of justice Wadhwa’s poverty definition, she said that “any kind of a fixed money limit makes no sense", because the value of money keeps changing.

At the heart of the poverty debate is the complex question: Who is a poor Indian?

That depends on whom you ask and the measures you use.

There are around 300 million people living below the World Bank’s poverty criterion of less than $1 (Rs45.60) per day, based on calories consumed and other socio-economic indicators.

The number of poor would rise to 370 million if you consider a December 2009 report by Suresh Tendulkar, former chairperson of the Prime Minister’s economic advisory council. And if you use the estimates from state governments, based on household income, then there are 420 million poor.

The World Bank also estimates that 80% of India’s population, or 800 million, live on less than $2 per day, a figure close to the Wadhwa report’s definition of poverty.

“The food bill could go up with the passage of the Food Security Act, though it is difficult to assess the quantum of increase," said Tendulkar, who used a broader definition, adding spending on health, clothing and education to calories consumed.

The fiscal implication of the Bill would vary depending on the poverty estimate chosen. (see graphic)

“The quantum of increase (of the food subsidy bill) would depend on the modalities," he said. “Given the leakages in the PDS (public distribution system), the food bill could be high, but that would be adequately addressed once the biometric cards (a reference to a smart-card project headed by former Infosys chief Nandan Nilekani) are given out."

Graphic by Ahmed Raza Khan / Mint