In an in­ter­view with New Sun­day Ex­press, econ­o­mist Jean Dreze says the cen­tral govern­ment is in­creas­ingly tak­ing con­trol of so­cial pro­grammes but does it have se­ri­ous com­mit­ment to them?

Sunday Express - - FRONT PAGE - JEAN DREZE Econ­o­mist

Amid con­tro­ver­sial re­ports of hunger deaths in Jhark­hand due to PDS ben­e­fi­cia­ries be­ing turned away, econ­o­mist Jean Dreze says even of­fi­cial records show that a sig­nif­i­cant pro­por­tion of peo­ple are be­ing de­prived of food rations. In an in­ter­view with

Ex­press, the prime mover be­hind the NREGA scheme said “this does not mean Aad­haar is solely re­spon­si­ble for the fail­ures of the PDS, but com­pul­sory bio­met­ric au­then­ti­ca­tion is mak­ing things worse.”

Crit­i­cal of “over-en­thu­si­asm for so­phis­ti­cated tech­nol­ogy” and adop­tion of “in­ap­pro­pri­ate tech­nolo­gies,” Dreze said excess cen­tral­i­sa­tion is af­fect­ing wel­fare pro­grammes like the PDS, NREGA and In­te­grated Child De­vel­op­ment Ser­vices. “There is no rea­son for these pro­grammes to be held hostage to sweep­ing in­struc­tions from New Delhi. The worst sit­u­a­tion is where the Cen­tre con­trols so­cial pro­grammes but has no se­ri­ous com­mit­ment to them. That is the way things are go­ing.”

MAN-MADE famines are part of In­dia’s cul­tural me­mory, dat­ing back to colo­nial times end­ing with the Ben­gal famine that killed mil­lions in the 1940s. Re­cent re­ports of hunger deaths in Jhark­hand have brought the fo­cus back on food se­cu­rity, par­tic­u­larly among pop­u­la­tions that are cru­cially de­pen­dent on the Public Distri­bu­tion Sys­tem.

That af­ter so many years of in­de­pen­dence, In­dia still strug­gles to reach food to hun­gry mouths and shows up big on the world map of mal­nu­tri­tion, de­spite its over­flow­ing gra­naries, speaks vol­umes about the coun­try’s se­rial ad­min­is­tra­tive fail­ure. The lat­est move to link Aad­haar to food rations seems to have com­pounded the prob­lem, though iron­i­cally it was de­vised to sup­ply food­grain to tar­geted pop­u­la­tions with­out in­ter­me­di­ate pil­fer­age and cor­rup­tion. The New In­dian Ex­press got in touch with de­vel­op­ment econ­o­mist Jean Dreze, whose work on food se­cu­rity in In­dia is well­known and who has been specif­i­cally study­ing the Jhark­hand sit­u­a­tion, to un­der­stand what’s ail­ing the sys­tem.

Dreze be­lieves the pol­icy of link­ing Aad­haar to PDS is not so much the prob­lem as the in­sis­tence on on­line bio­met­ric ver­i­fi­ca­tion at the vil­lage level. What suc­ceeded in Andhra Pradesh failed in Jhark­hand, re­sult­ing in hunger and deaths, be­cause of in­ad­e­quate in­fra­struc­ture. Smart cards would be a far bet­ter op­tion, if not off­line Aad­haar, he sug­gests in an email in­ter­view. Ex­cerpts from the in­ter­view: The re­cent hunger deaths that have been re­ported from Jhark­hand, are they en­tirely a fall­out of the pol­icy to make Aad­haar manda­tory for ac­cess to food rations? Or are they the com­pounded ef­fect of chronic mal­nu­tri­tion? Chronic un­der­nu­tri­tion is cer­tainly the larger prob­lem. It cre­ates a depen­dence of mil­lions of peo­ple on the PDS for food se­cu­rity. When the sys­tem is dis­rupted, as is hap­pen­ing to­day, in­ten­si­fied hunger is the log­i­cal con­se­quence. As far as Aad­haar is con­cerned, the main prob­lem in Jhark­hand is not just that Aad­haar is manda­tory for food rations but that Aad­haar-based bio­met­ric au­then­ti­ca­tion is com­pul­sory in most vil­lages. In a re­cent ar­ti­cle you cited stud­ies show­ing how Aad­haar has ad­versely im­pacted the al­ready del­i­cate food se­cu­rity sit­u­a­tion, ra­tion in­take, par­tic­u­larly in an im­pov­er­ished tribal state like Jhark­hand. As a gen­eral as­sump­tion, this may be a valid one to make. But had Aad­haar been solely re­spon­si­ble, would there not have been a wider ef­fect clearly and demon­stra­bly oc­cur­ring post-Aad­haar? There are in­deed clear and demon­stra­ble ef­fects, vis­i­ble for in­stance in of­fi­cial sta­tis­tics and field sur­veys. Even in Ranchi, more than one year af- ter bio­met­ric au­then­ti­ca­tion was made com­pul­sory, the of­fi­cial records show that a sig­nif­i­cant pro­por­tion of peo­ple are de­prived of food rations ev­ery month. This does not mean that Aad­haar is solely re­spon­si­ble for fail­ures of the PDS, as you put it. The point is that com­pul­sory bio­met­ric au­then­ti­ca­tion is mak­ing things worse. If the in­sis­tence on seed­ing Aad­haar to a food rations ob­tained through PDS is hav­ing a dis­as­trous ef­fect, do you think im­me­di­ate cor­rec­tive mea­sures should be taken? What do you sug­gest — an im­me­di­ate roll­back of the or­der or an al­ter­na­tive mech­a­nism where the tar­geted food sub­sidy/ra­tion reaches the right homes/re­cip­i­ents with­out pil­fer­age? By way of im­me­di­ate dam­age con­trol, I would sug­gest switch­ing the en­tire sys­tem to off­line mode. There is an off­line op­tion in the sys­tem, which does not re­quire con­nec­tiv­ity or bio­met­ric au­then­ti­ca­tion. The next step would be to as­sess whether this off­line op­tion is ad­e­quate as a per­ma­nent ar­range­ment, or whether there are bet­ter op­tions, such as a sim­ple smart-card sys­tem. What must be avoided at all cost is depen­dence on con­nec­tiv­ity and bio­met­rics at the ra­tion shop. No po­lit­i­cal party or govern­ment in a democ­racy would sub­ject the pop­u­la­tion to ob­vi­ous harm, or con­sciously adopt a lop­sided pol­icy that re­sults in hunger deaths. Do you think the re­cent cases are a re­sult of in­sen­si­tive ad­min­is­tra­tion, an en­trenched of­fi­cial ap­a­thy at all lev­els? I think that it is a com­bi­na­tion of over-en­thu­si­asm for so­phis­ti­cated tech­nol­ogy and lack of clar­ity or con­cern about the hard­ships that in­ap­pro­pri­ate tech­nolo­gies can cause to poor and pow­er­less peo­ple. Or do you think the sud­den shift to­wards a very cen­tralised pol­icy plan­ning far re­moved from ground re­al­i­ties that’s caus­ing the dis­tress? Af­ter all, in Ch­hat­tis­garh, an­other tribal state, we have a CM who is called ‘Chawal Baba’ — whose cheap rice distri­bu­tion scheme is seen to be one of the rea­sons for his elec­toral suc­cess. I think that cen­tral­i­sa­tion is in­deed a grow­ing prob­lem with many so­cial pro­grammes in In­dia in­clud­ing the PDS, the NREGA, the In­te­grated Child De­vel­op­ment Ser­vices and so­cial se­cu­rity pen­sions. There is no rea­son for these pro­grammes to be held hostage to tween Andhra Pradesh and Jhark­hand, both in terms of in­fra­struc­ture and state ca­pac­ity. Even in AP, there are sig­nif­i­cant prob­lems with bio­met­ric au­then­ti­ca­tion, and this should have alerted the cen­tral govern­ment to the fact that this tech­nol­ogy is not suit­able for states like Jhark­hand. But the cen­tral govern­ment is not in­ter­ested in ev­i­dence, it is sold to Aad­haar and de­ter­mined to pro­mote it come what may. Though the Food Se­cu­rity Act came into be­ing dur­ing the fag end of the UPA, isn’t it true that the pri­or­i­ties of suc­ces­sive gov­ern­ments since lib­er­al­i­sa­tion have been lop­sided, which is what gives us these ter­ri­ble hu­man in­dices? Do all pol­icy ini­tia­tives on food, nu­tri­tion, cheap hous­ing, drink­ing wa­ter, health­care, ba­sic ed­u­ca­tion have to be to­kenisms? As a throw­away line that says, ‘oh, we think about the poor too’? There’s some truth in that. So­cial pol­icy should be re­garded as the first and fore­most re­spon­si­bil­ity of the state, but in In­dia it tends to have low pri­or­ity. This bias goes back to 1947, it did not be­gin with lib­er­al­i­sa­tion. Back to Aad­haar, as a form of im­me­di­ate course cor­rec­tion, should the el­derly and women-led house­holds be left out of its am­bit? Be­cause it’s not just the poor and hun­gry in in­te­rior ham­lets who are be­ing hit by it but also the mid­dle class in ur­ban areas — an el­derly woman liv­ing alone has to trudge to the bank to get her ac­count linked to Aad­haar to ac­cess her money....

The Cen­tral govern­ment is not in­ter­ested in ev­i­dence, it is sold to Aad­haar and de­ter­mined to pro­mote it come what may

sweep­ing in­struc­tions is­sued from time to time in New Delhi, of­ten with­out ad­e­quate un­der­stand­ing of their con­se­quences. The worst sit­u­a­tion is where the Cen­tre con­trols so­cial pro­grammes but has no se­ri­ous com­mit­ment to them. That is the way things are go­ing to­day. Was un­der­de­vel­oped Jhark­hand, with a large tribal BPL pop­u­la­tion, a wrong choice to run the Aad­haarPDS scheme? Given the fact that the state sim­ply does not have the in­fra­struc­ture to seed the Aad­haar num­bers to ra­tion cards or the on­line fa­cil­i­ties that could help run the scheme ef­fi­ciently? Yes. Bio­met­ric au­then­ti­ca­tion in the PDS was tried ear­lier in Andhra Pradesh, with some­what bet­ter re­sults. But there is a world of dif­fer­ence be- It is true that Aad­haar-based tech­nolo­gies such as bio­met­ric au­then­ti­ca­tion tend to be par­tic­u­larly dif­fi­cult to use for the most vul­ner­a­ble. For the el­derly, in par­tic­u­lar, bio­met­ric fail­ures are very com­mon. But rather than cre­at­ing ex­emp­tions, I would pre­fer to put in place a sys­tem that works for ev­ery­body. One pos­si­bil­ity is smart cards. This is a well-tested tech­nol­ogy that does not re­quire bio­met­rics or con­nec­tiv­ity. It is used in ATMs, met­ros, milk booths, shop­ping cen­tres. Then, why not the PDS? How far do you think the hunger sit­u­a­tion has been com­pounded by de­mon­eti­sa­tion? No­body re­ally knows. But it stands to rea­son that de­mon­eti­sa­tion must have made things dif­fi­cult for many peo­ple who lived on the mar­gin in the first place. As far as Jhark­hand is con­cerned, we con­ducted two small sur­veys of the ef­fects of de­mon­eti­sa­tion in Ranchi last year, one of small traders and one of ca­sual labour­ers. Both sug­gested that in­comes had de­clined by about 40 per cent on av­er­age, dur­ing the two months that fol­lowed de­mon­eti­sa­tion. That alone would mean in­ten­si­fied hunger for many. Push­ing so many peo­ple to the wall, with­out any clar­ity about the goals of the ex­er­cise, is a grave in­jus­tice.


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