Plan panel puts poverty figures at higher level
By Alok Mukherjee
NEW DELHI, MAY 16. The Planning Commission, which recently approved the findings of the National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO) that the poverty level in the country had declined to 26.1 per cent in 1999-2000, has added a new twist to the whole issue.
In an official document on the Tenth Five-Year Plan, the Commission said that ``while only a quarter of population may be below the official poverty line, there are at least another 25 per cent people who consider themselves as poor and deserving of Government help.'' This statement has surprised economists since it amounts to disputing the poverty statistics provided by NSSO, which were recently endorsed by the Prime Minister, Mr. Atal Behari Vajpayee, too.
The sanctity of the NSSO figures is important not only from the point of view that they endorse the efficacy of the economic reforms, but also because they would determine the various allocations for poverty alleviation programmes and even the quantum of foodgrain that would be given to the Below Poverty Line (BPL) population at concessional rates. The Commission has, however, not attributed any source to the finding that an additional 25 per cent of the people consider themselves to be poor.
The comments of the Planning Commission appear in the course of its review of the public distribution system (PDS), which directly have an impact on poverty eradication. In fact, in a strong indictment of the targeted public distribution system (TPDS), which was started during the United Front Government, the Commission said that despite hefty increases in the annual food subsidy from Rs. 2,450 crores in 1990-91 to Rs. 9,200 crores in 1999-2000 and to Rs. 13,000 crores in 2000-01 ``all is not well with the TPDS in India.''
According to the Commission, there is 36 per cent diversion of wheat, 31 per cent diversion of rice and 23 per cent diversion of sugar from the system at the national level.
Some other problems associated with the scheme are lack of liquidity with the poor to buy 20 kgs at a time, they being not permitted to make purchases in installments and the low quality of foodgrain, which, according to a World Bank report of June 2000, reveals that half of the stock with the Food Corporation of India (FCI) is at least two years old, 30 per cent between two and four years old and some stock as old as 16 years.
There is also weak monitoring, lack of transparency and poor accountability of officials implementing the TPDS. The Commission said that the price charged from the poor is actually 10-14 per cent in excess of the official price.