In the last few days my reading has revolved around poverty and safety net programming in India.
First there was Duncan Green talking about the scale and speed of welfare state building in India and China. Second, the report from the planning commission of India saying that 21.9% of Indians (more than 270 million people) live below the poverty line, as defined by the Tendulkar method. There are challenges to the methods used by the committee but for now it is a measure that is being used.
In the backdrop has been the ultra ambitious (frightening scale actually) Food Security Ordinance; brought in only because the government did not have the confidence that the Food Security Bill would be passed by the Houses of Parliament soon enough. Once this is signed, it would mean that the government of India would be duty bound to provide subsidized food, primarily cereals, to over 67% of the population (more than 830 million people).
There is, naturally, a huge debate around whether the food security ordinance
- Does it make sense?
- Is it what India needs?
- Can India really do this?
I have a slightly different question to ask (and answer).
Is this a genuine safety net programme or is it just a political move masquerading as one? Remembering of course that it was the NREGA that was a key factor in the UPA II coming to power in 2009.
To me it sounds like a brilliant political move. The Congress (well UPA) knows that the urban chatterati are not really in support of its style and delivery over the last nine years. However, they also know that this section rarely votes and even if it does, their numbers don’t really matter. The real numbers that matter are those living in rural areas and those in urban slums. Thus making the offering of a vast safety net programme is a win-win all the way for the UPA. Why else would you offer subsidized food to 830 million people when you are claiming that only 270 million of them are poor? Even assuming that there is always a danger of people who are just above the poverty threshold of slipping back due to economic, climatic or market shocks, surely that figure cannot be upwards of 550 million people?)
There are other ‘advantages’ too
- Even if there are huge leakages, and there will be, some benefits will reach the poor and these benefits are tangible.
- The size of the programme itself allows for ‘favours’ to be granted and money to be generated through grain purchase, logistics etc.
The principal opposition party, the BJP (well the NDA which is crumbling as allies move away) has been caught in a neat trap. After being out of power for 9 years, all they have to showcase is Narendra Modi and the Gujarat model of ‘development’. Oh shoot I almost forgot the Ram Mandir at Ayodhya. No doubt that the man has a huge support but there is also considerable opposition and it is by no means certain that he will be able to triumph over the UPA. Even accepting the fact that they have been pathetic on the governance front. How neat is the trap is accentuated by the BJP President saying “…any government led by his party would do a better job of implementing economic reforms but will not jettison signature redistributive programs such as the food security bill, NREGA, and other safety net schemes initiated by the UPA dispensation.” What can be worse than admitting that your opposition political party has come up with programmes that you will continue? Why on earth he has to say it on a trip to the United States of America is another matter altogether.
- This ordinance (even the promise of the ordinance) will sweep the UPA to power for a third term. There are other factors, with no credible opposing force in place, no doubt but this will be big.
- The people living in abject poverty will remain where they are – dependent on the mai-baap sarkar for their survival thus perpetuating the vicious cycle.
- The middle class (tax payers) will remain strident but once again not be able to influence much in the electoral stakes.