Don’t these lives worth INR 17 a day shame you, Mr. Prime Minister?

[This is an AHRC article. ]
INR 17, or approximately 30 cents in USD, is what an average poor spends a day in rural India. Their urban friends are no better off either; they have to content with spending INR 27 for seeing a day off. Adjust that amount for the cost of living in urban centres and they are just as worse off as the poor in villages. All one can buy for 17 Rupees, to make sense of the amount, is not even a kilogram of wheat flour, forget everything else one would need to turn it into a meal. That is the extent of the crisis looming large over Indian poor. Unfortunately for the government, this data cannot be rubbished as it comes from National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO), a governmental body itself.
Not that it was not known before. In fact both the civil society and media were trying to wake the government out of its slumber and attend to the crisis. The government knew it as well, as was pointed out by the repeated admissions of the Prime Minister who has found the extent of child malnutrition a ‘National Shame’ and the President who has conceded that there was ‘no humiliation more abusive than hunger’ in nothing less than his acceptance speech. Both of them have promised to take concrete steps to arrest the poverty from deteriorating into a national crisis. Then, it seems, they forgot the promise.
NSSO’s findings for 2011-12 (July-June) show that INR 521.44 is all that the bottom 5% of the population has to survive a month in rural areas and INR 700.50 in urban ones. The findings, shockingly, bursts another bubble, the myth of Indian middle classes’ march into an era of prosperity. Pinching the balloon, it pegs average monthly expenditure of top 5 % of Indian population at a lowly INR 4481 in the countryside and only a marginally better INR 10,282 in the cities. Adjust it for the expenditures of the rich significantly lifting the average and we get a horrible scenario of widening gulf in incomes of the top 5 % of Indian population on one hand and rest of all Indians on the other. To understand the enormity of the message, the average monthly expenditure on a national level is a meagre INR 1430 for rural areas and just INR 2630, or about the cost of a family of five watching a single movie in a multiplex, in urban centers. That is all about the stories of growth and development being sold to the country.
The data also exposes the absolute failure of the self-designated ‘largest democracy of the world’ in saving its poor citizenry from falling into penury through the cracks that define a thousand welfare schemes it runs. Let’s look at the situation of hunger, for example. The poor are forced to shell out almost a half of their abysmally low daily expenditures on food. That is 42.6 % of the total expenditure in cities while a much higher 52.9 % in villages. How much the poor would be left with after spending this much just to ensure physical survival is anybody’s guess. Think of the amount they are left with for everything from education to leisure and the banality of this cruel joke tears one apart.
The situation merely worsens if one looks at where the worst affected come from. Worst hit are the villagers of Odisha and Jharkhand, closely followed by Bihar, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh. These are the same states which are worst performers in urban sector as well. That is almost half of total Indian Population.
The data could shame any government into action, more so if they claim to be already aware of the situation. Indian government, it seems, would have none of this. It is sitting upon for four years now, incomprehensively, even on a lame duck Food Security Bill severely criticised by the Right to Food Campaign of India for its serious limitations in fighting hunger. That is when the Bill does not specify any time frame for the rolling out of the entitlements promised, continues with skewed idea of a Targeted PDS that inherently excludes 33 % of the population from accessing the PDS as a right and provides for a mere 5 kilograms of food grains per person as against ICMR norms of 14 kilograms for adults and 7 for children. That the bill does not take care of specific issues plaguing the food and nutritional security of the women, allows for private profiteers and thereby corruption and leakages and does not offer any agriculture and production related entitlements is beside the point.
Similar was the fate of the Prime Minister’s Council on India’s Nutrition Challenges that was formed in the wake of his admission of 42 % of Indian children being severally malnourished. The commission, set up with much fanfare in 2008, was last heard for holding a single meeting way back in 2010. The Council has made a few path-breaking decisions to overhaul the system and save the children from falling prey to stunting by suffering severe malnutrition in the early years of their lives. The decisions included making efforts for universalisation of the Integrated Child Development Services by providing for an an Anganwadi centre for 500 to 1,000 people taking a little burden off it by lowering existing upper limit of 1500.
It had also proposed a second Anganwadi for a population of 1,000 to 2,000, and another for every additional 1,000 people. Similar were its recommendations for an Anganwadi for every 150 to 500 people in tribal areas and a mini-Anganwadi centre for places with a population of less than 150. Other proposals included ensuring a compulsory monthly weighing of children under the age of three at Anganwadi centres for keeping a tab on their nutritional situation, universal registration of births, issuing mother and child protection card and upgradation of Anganwadi centres into Anganwadis-cum-créches.

Needless is to say that the Council had not met ever since as against its mandate of meeting once in three months. In absence of any clear-cut guidelines, several ministries have been found to be taking controversial decisions like on the involvement of private sector in child survival and nutrition. The move that will pave the way for private profiteers to enter the sector with packaged food for the marginalised is being staunchly opposed by the civil society.
All this when private companies in nexus with vested interests deeply entrenched in administrative and political hierarchies have been found to have stolen more than INR 1000 Crore, or USD 185 million in the state of Maharashtra alone as per the findings of a report of Biraj Patnaik, Principal Adviser, Commissioners to the Supreme Court and were submitted to the court with reference to SLP (Civil) No. 10654 of 2012 in the matter of Vyankateshwar Mahila Auyodhigik Sahakari Sanstha v. Purnima Upadhyay and Others listed along with Civil Writ Petition 196 of 2001 (PUCL v. UOI).
Independent studies into the status of other welfare schemes ranging from Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act to Mid-day meal scheme tell the same tales of unbridled corruption, leakages and stealing from the funds earmarked for these schemes for the poor who have nothing else to bank upon. As it is, no one in his senses would really expect a person to survive a day on a mere 17 Rupees in rural and 27 in urban areas, will one. Even if one does, can one really expect these citizens of India to be able to break free of the vicious cycle of poverty with no money left for anything for education or health, two basic requirements for even thinking of making such an attempt?
Do the Indian poor, faced with such governmental apathy and inaction coupled with the economic distress haunting them stand a chance of survival with dignity? Does the situation shame the government of India into action if for nothing else? That is the question the government of a country that claims to be the largest democracy of the world must answer immediately.