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Revamping a Food Guarantee
The newly revised 8.1 estimate of BPL families, according to the Suresh Tendulkar panel, shows promise for becoming the basis of a revised food guarantee scheme.

The Suresh Tendulkar Committee's assessment of 8.1 crore below the poverty line (BPL) families may become the basis for the Union government's food guarantee scheme.

A hint to this effect came at an important meeting that saw the government launch its bid to push the National Food Security Act and start a process to bring the states on board over the issue of identification of BPL families. The BPL figures are important as many of the government's social welfare and poverty alleviation programmes are based on them; their success or failure can then be gauged depending on the numbers.

The central government has been under increasing pressure from state governments to carry out a fresh BPL assessment as the Planning Commission's assessment of 6.52 crore BPL families was seen by many to be unrealistic.

The Dandekar-Rath poverty line formula that has been used since 1971 measures only the calorie content of an Indian's diet. If it is lower than 2,250 calories per person per day, the person is declared to be below the poverty line. This norm has not been revised in 35 years.
The committee, headed by economist Suresh Tendulkar, who is chairman of the Prime Minister's Economic Advisory Council, has drawn up a new formula to assess poverty which was submitted to the Planning Commission last year.

It replaces the calorie measurement by a cost-of-living index, that is, how much money a person spends. It looks at a basket of household goods and services such as health and education. The new poverty line is different for different states, and also different for rural and urban areas within a state.

The new method of drawing the 'poverty line' has resulted in an increase in the number of people living below the poverty line in India, from 27.5% of the population to 37.2%. That's an increase of 10% for 2004-05.

At the meeting in New Delhi, Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar suggested that the Centre consider setting up a statutory and autonomous body like the Election Commission to look into BPL identification-related issues.

Identification of beneficiaries is going to be "a tough and lengthy task," a senior official said. "The government will get caught in an identification conundrum, unless of course it decides to accept the Tendulkar panel report as the basis."

The government does seem to be moving in that direction. The meeting of core group of chief ministers and central ministers, chaired by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh at his residence, decided to set up a sub-group to finalise the methodology of BPL identification as well as streamline and reform the public distribution system (PDS). Tendulkar, along with the chief ministers of Assam and Chhattisgarh, has been named a member of the group, which will submit its recommendations in two months.

This is significant and also likely to find a consensus among the states as was evident from Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi's endorsement of the group. "There are different estimates of the number of BPL families in the country. The Tendulkar Committee, Saxena Committee, Arjun Sengupta Committee and Planning Commission all have different figures. I urge that the government urgently come out with a uniform and acceptable figure to help states better assist poor families," he said.

The meeting decided to set up two other groups -- on agricultural production, under the chairmanship of Haryana Chief Minister B S Hooda, and consumer affairs under Modi's chairmanship -- to suggest long-term measures to boost agricultural production to reduce prices and ensure efficient delivery of essential food items to the poor, within two months. The first group will include the chief ministers of Punjab, West Bengal and Bihar, and the other the chief ministers of Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, and Tamil Nadu.

The chief ministers spoke about issues confronting their respective states on the price front and agreed with the Centre about the need to increase agricultural production. The picture remains grim with grain production registering a steep decline of 8.94% over the past decade. There are also large variations in productivity across states and districts, in all crops.

Reducing the gap between farm and retail prices, better implementation of the Essential Commodities Act and delivery to vulnerable sections were also identified as key issues to be addressed immediately.

Source: Infochange