September 30, 2007

Honourable minister for agriculture – sir.....

Honourable minister for agriculture – sir, rather than cutting the subsidies from the midday mead scheme, please arrest the existing corruption in the public distribution system!

A recent report carried by a leading daily stated the inability of the government to carry on with the subsidies provision of the food grains for the ‘midday meal scheme’. As such, since the very beginning, the scheme has been inflicted by myriad avoidable roadblocks, but what the government is now planning is going to be the final nail on the coffin of the scheme. According to the report, the agricultural Ministry is contemplating supplying food grains at the so called ‘economic rate’ (Rs. 12,000 per metric tonne), which is almost double the subsidised rate (Rs. 5650 per metric tonne), effectively meaning that it would neither be a loss nor a profit making proposition for the government. For a liberalised economy, which, at the behest of the prescription of the World Bank and IMF, is trying to cut subsidies, many a liberal may think that cutting midday meal subsidies is a rational decision. But from the perspective of a country that pulls out all stops to project itself as an emerging superpower and a trillion dollar economy, nothing can be more shortsighted and shameful.

In fact, the very rationale for launching this scheme was to increase the net enrolment ratios (in schools) and also to arrest the dropout rates, particularly from primary schools. And also based on the very fact that the state of education is appalling in this country where almost 1.5 crore children do not even have access to basic education; and even for those who have access, a whopping 50% drop out by the time they reach class ninth, on account of various reasons... primarily being poverty. It is no secret that it is this very matter of providing two meals to their children that has forced millions of families into destitution, consequently forcing them to shun education of their children (even when ‘education’ is free), in order to make them work instead. The midday meal scheme, for this very reason, has been stupendously important, as the very idea of getting a reasonably nutritious meal at least once a day has been successful in making poor families send their kids to school. But now, by shockingly subscribing to this illogical rationality of ‘economy rate’ instead of the normal subsidised rate, the chances of this scheme having a premature end are too high. In the shorter run, the government may end up saving a few odd crores, but in reality we would definitely be jeopardising the future of our nation.

What is incredible is the thoroughly irrational justification that the Ministry has put forward as its ‘logic’. They state that there is pressure on prices of wheat as the production of wheat has remained stagnant and the demand has grown manifold. Also that the same holds true for rice, except for the fact that the international demand for rice has gone up, putting pressures on procurement prices. As a result of this, the Department of Food and Public Supplies has stated that they cannot continue the subsidy on the midday meal scheme as they ostensibly need to continue their support to the below-poverty-line families through the subsidised public distribution system. Compare this with the most ironical fact that on the same day, another report that got published in another leading daily shockingly revealed that an incredible Rs. 31,500 crores worth of food grains has been diverted – or rather robbed – from the public distribution system in the past three years alone. It is incredible to learn that more than 50% of wheat and 40% of rice (to the tune of a staggering Rs. 10,000 crores on an average per year), which was meant for the poor, has been siphoned off by middlemen and corrupt bureaucrats. According to the report, Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal, MP, Assam top the list. Is it any surprise that these states are also home to most of the poor people.

With that as the background, I ask our Honourable Minister for Agriculture – Sir, why, rather than plugging the rampant siphoning of food grains from the PDS, is your Department of Food and Public Supplies trying to cease the subsidy on the crucial midday meal scheme? And to our Honourable Minister for HRD, I ask – Sir, why is your Ministry trying to bargain for more budgets from the Planning Commission to absorb the subsidy rather than advocating the same logic to the Ministry of Agriculture? Dear Sirs, I am sure both of you realise that for the scheme to run successfully for over 9.5 lakh primary schools, all that is required is a budget of Rs. 7,300 crores (at subsidided prices... and this amount does not include cost of food procurement alone, but also includes cooking and transportation cost). If you realise this, then you should also realise that this entire scheme can actually run free of cost – and still leave some money for the expansion of the scheme – if the Ministry of Agriculture can save that Rs. 10,000 crores per year, which is currently going into the pockets of the corrupt every year. This might make a few corrupt officials in the supply chain turn hostile, but for many such families living in destitution, for whom education is still an economic burden, your move would provide a new ray of hope! Can you step forward, Sirs?

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