INDIA: Dismantling social security, brick by brick

[This is an AHRC Statement.]
In the latest blow to social security schemes that are preventing millions of Indians from being pushed to starvation, the Indian government has decided to phase out the Antyodaya Anna Yojana (Food Scheme for the Last Person). The scheme, meant for the poorest of the poor, covers around 20 million people, with most beneficiaries belonging to the most vulnerable sections of the population, like single elderly people, widows, and single mothers.
A recent order issued by the Department of Food and Public Distribution, titled “Targeted Public Distribution System (Control) Order, 2015” states the following:
“Provided that when an Antyodaya household becomes ineligible on account of migration outside the State, improvement in social or economic status, death, etc., no new Antyodaya household shall be identified in that State and the total number of Antyodaya households shall be reduced to that extent.”
Even a cursory glance exposes the absurdity of the Order’s logic. Numerous studies have shown that most of the migration taking place across the Indian countryside is distress migration. People are moving simply for survival and this cannot, therefore, be categorized as beneficiaries climbing out of poverty.
Read with another clause of the same order, which bars people from cover under the Public Distribution System outside their states, and the squeeze of this double whammy hits home. The other relevant clause reads:
“The State Government shall issue a ration card only to a citizen of India who is resident of that State and who fulfils the conditions for getting a ration card as may be prescribed by the State Government.”
The message is clear. Leave your state for whatsoever reason – even for reason of extreme distress – and lose social security cover at both places. In fact, given how poorly all Indian states have implemented the Inter-State Migrant Workmen (Regulation of employment and Conditions of Service) Act, 1978, this Order becomes a triple whammy. If the Inter-State Migrant Workmen Act was being implemented in letter and spirit, at least distressed migrant workers could have some security net in their workplace with access to basic healthcare.
Furthermore, the Order caps the number of households covered under the scheme at present numbers and would then progressively reduce beneficiaries by not issuing new cards as beneficiaries become “ineligible” on various counts with the passage of time. In doing so, the Order presumes that no household/individuals are going to be pushed into penury ever again, a laughable presumption given the steep cuts (20%) to an already deflated health budget.
The cuts will hit the poor hardest. Studies have repeatedly medical emergencies to be single biggest reason poor families slip into destitution and/or debt bondage. With a non-functional public health system and the absence of any health insurance cover, most poor families are compelled to make out of pocket health payments for such emergencies. Borrowed money from local money sharks at astronomical rates (5 to 15% compound interest per month) often being the only source, families get trapped into debt bondage.
Phasing out Antyodaya Anna Yojna will affect the poorest of the poor the most. The government must revoke the order if it has not already decided to abandon the poorest in India and accepted debt bondage/modern slavery as a way of life in the Indian hinterlands.