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Food benefits are not for the poor

DELIVERANCE FROM HUNGER -- THE PUBLIC DISTRIBUTION SYSTEM IN INDIA K R Venugopal Publisher: Sage Publications, New Delhi Price: Rs 225

By Ash Gulati
Published: Sunday 31 January 1993

-- IN A poverty-ridden country, particularly in the rural areas, it is legitimate to ask to what extent the public distribution system (PDS) of foodgrains acts as a security cover to the poor. The question becomes all the more important in a country such as India where the PDS involves an explicit subsidy of more than Rs 2,400 crore, though policy makers are planning now to reduce this. These are the issues focussed upon by K R Venugopal, a bureaucrat who is familiar with food economy-related problems.

Venugopal contends the existing PDS is predominantly urban and helps only the middle and rich sections. Except for Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh, where the PDS has spread to rural areas as well, the public distribution system in the rest of the country remains untargeted and does not benefit the rural poor. Other attempts to distribute food to the rural poor through anti-poverty programmes such as the National Rural Employment Programme, Rural Labour Employment Guarantee Programme and Integrated Rural Development Programme did not attain much success because food distribution was never accorded any priority.

Changing focus The author says the PDS must be dramatically restructured so that it focusses on the rural poor. It is these sections who require food security in terms of economic access and not the urban rich and middle classes. For the non-poor urban population, the author stresses on the availability factor minus the subsidies. Thus, in brief, managing the food economy of the country should entail making foodgrains affordable to the rural poor and available to the non-poor in urban areas.

The book provides insights into the operational problems that crop up while carrying out different public distribution schemes in different states. The Andhra Pradesh Rice Scheme is studied in detail, maybe because Venugopal was state food secretary at the time and had first-hand information about the scheme.

However, he should have elaborated more on the problems of identifying the rural poor. In a country where political leaders still follow populist measures, it will be difficult to get subsidised distribution of foodgrains restricted to the rural poor. There is also no mention in the book of the government's latest attempts at identifying 1,700 poor blocks where a revamped PDS will be launched. If this is managed by the local people with help from NGOs, can it make an effective contribution? These are the issues that need further probing today.

Ashok Gulati is Director of the National Council of Applied Economic Research in New Delhi.

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