Sunday, December 01, 2013

Impact: 'Landmark Food Scheme May Have Turned Stale'

By Mithilesh Mishra | Raipur

The reach of Chhattisgarh's food distribution programme has not been uniform. Santosh Chaudhury, 35, runs a laundry in Raipur’s affluent Telebandha area. With his moderate income, he supports his family of four and doesn’t have too many complaints against the Bharatiya Janata Party government that has been in power for the last ten years. Raman Singh has done a lot for the poor, he says, while purchasing his monthly quota of subsidised foodgrains from the neighbourhood ration shop.
Mr. Chaudhury, however, believes that the BJP should not be voted into power for a third term. What annoys Mr. Chaudhury, a farmer, is that he has to run a laundry. Looking at Mr. Chaudhury’s ration card, Akash Sharma, the shop owner, makes his case for change. “No one should be in power for 15 years,” he says. They both, however, appreciate the distribution of subsidised grains and other consumables like sugar, salt, wheat, kerosene or pulses by the Raman Singh government.

Re-launched in 2007, the subsidised food distribution programme can be said to have benefited Chhattisgarh’s predominantly agrarian society. The programme, now an Act, has ramped up the crop requirement, thus benefiting farmers. The government procures 80,000 lakh tonnes of Kharif crop, giving a minimum support price (MSP) of Rs. 1,270 per quintal (much higher than what was allotted during the Congress government's tenure) topped with a bonus of Rs. 270 per quintal. 

The crop procured is then dispatched for milling, which, in turn, creates further income opportunities. Milled grains and other food items are then sent to cooperative societies that stock and distribute the material such as the one in Telebandha. “We procure rice at Rs. 1.55 a kilogram and distribute it at Rs. 2, thus making a profit of 45 paise,” explained Mr Sharma. “The profit is then equally distributed among the 100-odd stakeholders of the society,” he added.

Chhattisgarh is not a pioneer in creating a votebank out of the beneficiaries of a government programme. In West Bengal, over 45 lakh families benefited from the land reform programme. The beneficiaries included women, landless families, sharecroppers and families who received homestead land. These beneficiaries contributed significantly to keeping the Left Front in power for decades.

Creating four tiers of beneficiaries, Raman Singh may well have replicated a Bengal-type model in Chhattisgarh where subsidised food is reaching 44 lakh families and 1.1 crore voters, potentially.

Figures, however, show that the benefits of the food programme have not reached Chhattisgarh society uniformly. Only about nine lakh out of 32 lakh farmers in the State could sell their surplus crop to the State’s current annual Kharif requirement of 80 lakh metric tonnes. This means that the rest of the 23 lakh farmers are not growing enough crops to sell to the government. Given the fact that 76% of the farmers are small or marginal, it is evident that only the big landholders are taking advantage of the bonus and MSP.

Around 32 lakh families were already receiving subsidised food before the 2008 elections, which means only 10 to 12 lakh families have been added to the subsidised food programme in last five years. BJP leaders fear that the returns from investment in the food distribution programme are diminishing. The impact on the 2013 elections may be less, they say.

Moreover, the online register of complaints shows that a large number of people have been deemed not eligible for the subsidised food because their names do not appear in the BPL Survey of 2002. However, the data shows that 65 lakh cards were distributed among the 44 lakh families. 

“Yes, there have been cases where cards have been received by some who were not entitled to subsidised food,” said a top bureaucrat who wished to remain anonymous. While the administration admits to this corruption-driven anomaly, it remains to be seen whether the BPL families, who have not received ration cards, voted against the BJP.

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