Posts Tagged ‘Congress’
Ten years of a rural employment guarantee programme in India is well worth marking for the transformations it has brought about in rural districts and urban towns both, for the two kinds of Indias are so closely interlinked. The ten year mark has been surrounded by opportunistic political posturing of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) of the ruling National Democratic Alliance and by churlish accusations from the Indian National Congress (or Congress party, now in the opposition).
When the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act came about (it is now prefixed by MG, which is Mahatma Gandhi) ten years ago, it was only the newest in a long line of rural poverty alleviation programmes whose beginnings stretch past the Integrated Rural Development Programme (still a touchstone during the Ninth Five Year Plan) whose early period dates from the 1970s as a more coherent manifestation of the ‘Food For Work’ programme. Democratic decentralisation, which is casually dropped into central government communications nowadays as if it was invented only last week, was explained at length as early as the Sixth Five Year Plan. And in the Fourth Five Year Plan, in the guidance section it was stated that measures were needed for “widening opportunities of productive work and employment to the common man and particularly the less privileged sections of society” which “have to be thought out in a number of different contexts and coordinated in to effective, integrated programmes”.
This is only the barest glimpse of the historical precursors to the MGNREGA. The size of our rural population in the decade of the 2010s transforms any national (central government) programme into a study of gigantism over a number of dimensions, and so it is with the (MG)NREGA whose procedural demands for organising information over time and place became a discipline by itself, leading to the creation of a management information system whose levels of detail are probably unmatched anywhere in the world.
For its administrators, every week that the MGNREGA delivers money to households in a hamlet for work sanctioned by that small panchayat is one more successful week. There have over this last decade been considerably more successful weeks than unsuccessful ones. This has happened not because of politicians of whichever party of persuasion, but because of the decision made by many households to participate in the shape that NREGA (and later MGNREGA) took in their particular village. The politicians, like the parties they belong to, are incidental and transitory. At this stage of the programme’s life, it is to be hoped that it continues to run as a participatory pillar of the economy of Bharat, and assimilates in the years to come new concerns from the domains of organic (or zero budget) agriculture, sustainable development and ecological conservation.
At this stage the commentaries look back at the last year or perhaps two of the programme. “It is unclear, however, what the present NDA government thinks about the performance of the scheme,” commented the periodical Down To Earth. “Last year, Prime Minister Narendra Modi called MGNREGA a ‘monument of failure’. Now, the rural development ministry has termed it as ‘a cause of national pride’.” The magazine went on to add that MGNREGA “started losing steam when wages were kept pending, leading to the liability being carried forward to the following year”.
“What is relatively less known is the impact of MGNREGA on several other aspects of the rural economy, such as wages, agricultural productivity and gender empowerment,” a commentary in the financial daily Mint has pointed out. “While most critics lament the quality of assets created under MGNREGA, there is now increasing evidence based on rigorous studies, which suggest that not only has the asset quality been better than comparable government programmes, they are also used more by the community.”
The finance minister has been quoted by the daily Indian Express as follows: “A kind of indifference towards it (MGNREGA) was growing by 2013-14, when the scheme entered its seventh and eighth years. When there was a change of government in 2014-15, there was talk on whether the scheme will be discontinued, or its fund allocation curtailed,” Minister Arun Jaitley is reported to have said at the MGNREGA ‘Sammelan’ in New Delhi. “The new government [the BJP] not only took forward the scheme but also increased its fund.”
In a Press Information Bureau release, the Minister for Rural Development, Birender Singh, said that 2015-16 has seen a revival of the MGNREGA programme. He also said that more than 64% of total expenditure was on agriculture and allied activities and 57% of all workers were women (well above the statutory requirement of 33%), and that among the measures responsible for the “revival of MGNREGA are the timely release of funds to states to provide work on demand, an electronic fund management system, consistent coordination between banks and post offices besides monitoring of pendency of payments”.
So far so good. What MGNREGA administrators need to mind now is for managerial technology and methods to not get ahead (or around) the objectives of the programme because these tend to keep the poor and vulnerable out instead of the other way around. The evaluations and studies on NREGA – and there have been a number of good ones – have shown that the more new financial and administrative measures there are, the greater the decline in participation in the programme. Administrative complexity also provides fodder to those, like this pompous commentator, who try to find in data ‘evidence’ that NREGA does “not help the poor”.
The MGNREGA’s usefulness and relevance is not only about creating employment when it is needed and its generally positive impact on wages. For all its shortcomings the MGNREGA programme has also helped revitalise the need to understand labour dynamics in rural areas particularly as it pertains to agriculture and cultivation. At a time when the flashier sections of the modern economy have lost their shine (if ever there was a shine) and when the need for panchayat-led, village-centric development that is self-reliant in deed and spirit is growing in Bharat, a programme like the MGNREGA has all the potential to serve the country well for another generation.
There is no practical, moral, democratic and defensible reason any longer for the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) to continue to have anything to do in India (or anywhere else) relating to food or hunger or poverty.
This is because the growth of food insecurity in the USA has paralleled the rise in the numbers of those who are poor, by any measure whether in terms of income, lack of access to a balanced diet, lack of access to essential social sector services. According to studies that have been released from late 2013 onwards, the number of households in the USA that live on less than US$2 per day more than doubled between 1996 and 2011, from 636,000 to 1.46 million. Moreover, there are now nearly 3 million children who live in households that earn less than $2 per day.
It is absurd and deeply cynical for the government of Barack Obama, the White House, the US State Department, and a host of top-ranking thinktanks to continue to claim that Indo-American ties require USAID and USDA to continue propagating agricultural models and advocating technology-centric solutions in India to solve our problems of poverty and hunger. India must halt all activity with these two agencies and advise them bluntly to turn inwards – for by their own charters that is where they are needed.
The latest evidence comes from Feeding America, which is the national network of food banks in the USA. It has just released its annual report on local food insecurity which shows that one in six Americans – including one in five children – did not have enough to eat at some point in 2012. The report found that there are dozens of counties where more than a third of children do not get enough to eat. The incidence of hunger has grown dramatically. The percentage of households that are “food insecure” rose from 11.1% in 2007 to 16% in 2012.
According to separate data from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), food insecurity is more widespread in the USA than in any other major developed country, with the rate of food insecurity in the US nearly twice that of the European Union average, which is by itself worrying for what purport to be the so-called ‘advanced’ economies (whereas India is ’emerging’).
That we have a situation wherein USAID and USDA (“from the American people”, is the sanctimonious tagline attached to USAID interference, when the American people do not know what injustice is being done to other people in their name, and when they are being robbed of food so that American foreign policy goals are fulfilled) continue to set aid agendas in South Asia while a fifth of American children are hungry is an international social disaster fostered by the current economic system and its political defenders.
In the USA both Democratic and Republican administrations (there is no real difference) have become adept at starving anti-poverty programmes, but have taken that expertise to new levels under Obama. The US Congress and the White House have overseen two successive food stamp cuts in just six months: first in November 2013, when benefits were slashed US$36 per month for a family of four, and again in January 2014, when benefits were cut by an average of US$90 per month for nearly a million households.
Even when the US Census had signalled the new levels of impoverishment reached by the average household, some US$4.1 billion was cut from the food stamps, or SNAP, programme citing “waste, fraud and abuse”. It is significant to note here that exactly the same kind of language has been used in India to call for the curtailing and eventual dismantling of our Public Distribution System (PDS). In cutting about US$90 a month in benefits for 500,000 households – more than a week’s worth of assistance for a typical American family in need – they now encroached on the US$1.50 per person per meal equation (around Rs 90, which may buy two meagre vegetarian thalis in an Indian city).
The government of the USA has done this at a time when, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), it spent in 2013 US$640 billion which amounted to 36% of the entire world’s total military expenditure. Still unsatisfied by such heinous perversion, the American White House and Congress discontinued unemployment benefits for some three million people (and their two million dependent children), but continued to stall the prosecution of the financial criminals responsible for the 2008 crash.
The concentration of wealth at one social pole is coupled with disastrous social conditions at the other. A generation of young people in the USA has been thrust into poverty and joblessness – almost 16% of young people aged 25 to 34 have incomes below the national poverty line. In comparison, 10% of people in the same age group were in poverty in 2000. The median income of young households is $8,000 less than it was in 2000, in real terms.
Are those standing for election to the Lok Sabha capable of relating to the needs of those they claim to represent? Many measures exist for testing that claim, and the most base amongst them concerns income and assets.
If your candidates are very much richer than you are, once elected how much of their energies will they devote to enriching themselves (and their sponsors) rather than attending to your civic needs?
This chart shows why this should be a matter of democratic procedure. The data has been taken from the excellent work done by the Association for Democratic Reform, which runs the ‘My neta’ website, which has tabulated the statutory declarations of the candidates. Among the set of declarations is the candidates’ assets.
To show the relation between what the candidates to Lok Sabha 16 have declared and the assets of those they say they represent, I have included national averages, rural and urban, for household assets.
There are 12 assets averages to be seen. The candidates (more than 3,200) have been divided into deciles (or tenths) ranked by their declarations. Thus the eighth decile would have candidates in the 80% to 70% positions ranked on rupee value of assets, and the fifth decile would have candidates in the 50% to 40% positions, and so on.
In between are the average household assets for rural and urban households in India. These are taken from studies based on the National Sample Survey Office (NSSO). The chart displays these averages as a pair (lighter and darker coloured circles) to indicate a range. We find the assets of the rural household are between the eighth and seventh deciles of what candidates have declared, and the assets of the urban household are between the seventh and sixth deciles of what candidates have declared.
This chart tells us very quickly that from the sixth decile of candidates onwards, their worth is already at least twice that of those they claim to represent. At the fourth decile, their worth is a stratospheric eight times that of the average rural household. At the second decile, their worth is an astounding 20 times that of the urban household. At the first decile, the equation is meaningless.
This is not based on an exact mathematics. The asset averages for the rural and urban households I have used are broad estimates, and are no doubt skewed by the richer rural and urban deciles and quintiles themselves. But the relative differences are seen starkly, and help indicate why the inequality between Member of Parliament and electors we saw in 2009 has deepened in 2014.
There is a new contributor to an old subject in India. The subject is poverty, and the newcomer is a management consulting company. This sort of company has no experience with such a subject, however the McKinsey Global Institute – which works as “the research arm of consulting company McKinsey” – has not been short of advisers on the matter.
What does this consulting company say and why should we keep an eye on their activity in this subject? This institute has issued a report called ‘From poverty to empowerment: India’s imperative for jobs, growth and effective basic services’. The proposal, unabashedly touted as new thinking, is that India should focus not on a poverty line but on a “more comprehensive measure of what it would take to satisfy a person’s basic needs for food, energy, housing, drinking water, sanitation, healthcare, schooling and social security”.
This new thinking – presented as a startling innovation in the same way that a new brand of running shoes or some such frippery is launched – is called an “empowerment line”. This ‘line’ has been placed at Rs 1,336 rupees a month – which McKinsey points out is about 50% higher than the national official poverty line.
What is sought to be fixed at the bidding of the current government of India and at what cost? This new report by the McKinsey Global Institute suggests that Rs 330,000 crore should be spent over the next 10 years to “empower 680 million Indians who are only marginally better than those under the poverty line”. And moreover that this spending be increased to reach 1.08 million crore by 2022 because “the government’s spending on various development schemes” does not “effectively reach much of the public”. At current rates of exchange, that is US$ 173 billion and what handsome percentage of that will be marked (or unmarked) as consultants’ fees?
Likewise, we must also examine those who have provided, as McKinsey has said, “insights and guidance” for this work. Among those listed are Subir Gokarn, director of research of Brookings India and former deputy governor of the Reserve Bank of India; Vijay Kelkar, chairman of the India Development Foundation, former chairman of India’s Finance Commission, and former finance secretary, Government of India; Montek Singh Ahluwalia, deputy chairman of the Planning Commission of India; Arun Maira and B K Chaturvedi, members of the Planning Commission of India; Rakesh Mohan, India’s executive director at the International Monetary Fund; Nandan Nilekani, chairman, Unique Identification Authority of India; S Ramadorai, adviser to the Prime Minister, National Council on Skill Development; and Soli Sorabjee, former attorney-general of India.
These people are votaries of the thesis that GDP growth is good, and that all policy must conform to such a doctrine. Hence it becomes easier to see the connection between the direction that the UPA 1 and UPA 2 governments have taken till here, and the firm grip finance and industry have on the country’s journey into ‘development’, aided by the outpourings of management consulting companies such as McKinsey. This ‘empowerment index’ is nothing but a repetition of the desire that over the period 2010-20, urban India must create 70% of all new jobs in India and these urban jobs will be twice as productive as equivalent jobs in the rural sector, as stated in ‘India’s Urban Awakening: Building Inclusive Cities, Sustaining Economic Growth’, a report by the McKinsey Global Institute issued in early 2010.
The expectation is that as India’s cities expand, India’s economic profile will also change. In 1995, India’s GDP was divided almost evenly between its urban and rural economies. In 2008, urban GDP accounted for 58% of overall GDP. By 2030, according to the McKinsey report’s calculations, urban India will generate nearly 70% of India’s GDP. Such a transformation, if it comes to pass, is expected to deliver a steep increase in India’s per capita income between now and 2030 wherein the number of middle class households (earning between Rs 2 lakh and Rs 10 lakh a year) will increase from 32 million to 147 million. And it is against the drawing of that alarming line of minimum urbanisation drawn four years earlier, that this new line must be viewed, together with the injunction that “India can bring more than 90 percent of its people above the Empowerment Line in just a decade by implementing inclusive reforms”.
Update: Samples collected by the UN chemical experts team in the Damascus suburb will be transferred to laboratories for analysis “within hours,” a spokesperson for UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has said in a note to correspondents. “The samples were shipped this afternoon from The Hague and will reach their destination within hours,” the note said. It added that the designated laboratories are prepared to begin the analyses “immediately after receipt of samples.”
Ria Novosti has quoted Alexei Pushkov, who heads the international affairs committee in the lower chamber of the Russian parliament, the State Duma, as having said: “By sending the Nimitz nuclear aircraft carrier to Syria’s shores, Obama demonstrates that the military action has been postponed, but not cancelled, and that he is determined to start a war.”
Press communiqués from Russia indicate that President Vladimir Putin’s government in Moscow wants any military action to go through the UN Security Council, but will likely block any resolution to authorise it, citing lack of conclusive evidence that the Syrian government, not the insurgents, was behind the attack.
Moscow will continue to support the Assad government with weapons and humanitarian aid, as it has in the past. The view of Russian analysts is that this is so because Moscow has invested a considerable sum in Assad’s government through loans and financial support.
Der Spiegel has a longish news feature in which it has explained that the USA has stepped back from an immediate response to the alleged use of chemical weapons in Syria on 21 August 2013. But the Obama regime in Washington continues to profess “certainty” that Syrian president Bashar Assad is behind the attack. Der Spiegel’s tone is pro-White House and certainly not objective enough for even a third-rate district newspaper, but this sort of Europedantry is useful for indicating how the autocratic regimes in Berlin, Paris and London are currently thinking.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has said secrecy by the West is unacceptable with regard to Syria and evidence of the use of chemical weapons there. He added that “what our American, British and French partners have shown us before – as well as now – does not convince us at all. There are no supporting facts, there is only repetitive talk in the vein of ‘we know for sure’. And when we ask for further clarification, we receive the following response: ‘You are aware that this is classified information, therefore we cannot show it to you.’ So there are still no facts.”
An article in Counterpunch has said that “having been released prior to even preliminary reports from UN chemical weapons investigators on the ground in Syria, the (American) document (claiming proof of the Syrian government’s use of chemical weapons on its own population) is as much a work of fiction as it is fact.”
Outside the cosmeticised clutter of the world’s mainstream and corporate media, a number of information channels are citing interviews with doctors, Ghouta residents, rebel fighters in Syria and their families, from which a very different picture emerges. Many believe that certain rebels received chemical weapons via the Saudi intelligence chief, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, and were responsible for carrying out the dealing gas attack.
In a recent article for Business Insider, reporter Geoffrey Ingersoll highlighted Saudi Prince Bandar’s role in the two-and-a-half year Syrian civil war. Many observers believe Bandar, with his close ties to Washington, has been at the very heart of the push for war by the U.S. against Assad. Ingersoll referred to an article in Britain’s Daily Telegraph about secret Russian-Saudi talks alleging that Bandar offered Russian President Vladimir Putin cheap oil in exchange for dumping Assad.
“Prince Bandar pledged to safeguard Russia’s naval base in Syria if the Assad regime is toppled, but he also hinted at Chechen terrorist attacks on Russia’s Winter Olympics in Sochi if there is no accord,” Ingersoll wrote. “Along with Saudi officials, the US allegedly gave the Saudi intelligence chief the thumbs up to conduct these talks with Russia, which comes as no surprise. Bandar is American-educated, both military and collegiate, served as a highly influential Saudi Ambassador to the US, and the CIA totally loves this guy.”
Update: The rush to attack Syria by the Obama administration is being prepared in contempt of international law, democratic processes and in contempt of public opinion in the USA itself. This was made abundantly clear in the presentation US Secretary of State John Kerry delivered from the State Department on Friday, 30 August.
On Saturday, 31 August, Russian President Vladimir Putin dismissed as “utter nonsense” the US claims that the Syrian government forces have used chemical weapons. “The Syrian government troops are on the offensive … So giving a trump card to those who are calling for a military intervention is utter nonsense,” Putin told reporters in Vladivostok.
The so-called US ‘Government Assessment of the Syrian Government’s Use of Chemical Weapons’ contains not one shred of probative evidence. As emphasised by the website of the International Committee of the Fourth International, the document, barely three pages long, includes a series of unsubstantiated assertions that are tailored to the US policy aim of manufacturing a pretext for direct intervention in a US-provoked civil war aimed at toppling the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad.
To the question, put to him by Syrian playwright Mohammad Al Attar, which was, “You have a cautious stance on recent Western statements about arming opposition fighters. Why is this?”, Noam Chomsky, interviewed in July 2013, replied: “It is linked to an evaluation of the consequences. Once again, I believe there are much simpler ways that the West can take before making the leap to military aid, some of which I have mentioned above, but which further include providing increased levels of humanitarian aid. If we are serious, we must look at the consequences of such an action. What would be the result on a humanitarian level? My question is practical, not ethical.” More from the Heinrich Böll Stiftung Middle East.
But the views of the reasonable and pacifist many have rarely halted the war charges of the White House. A poll carried out by the American broadcaster NBC has showed that nearly 80% of those polled want approval from the US Congress for military action against Syria. “Nearly 80 percent of Americans believe President Barack Obama should receive congressional approval before using force in Syria, but the nation is divided over the scope of any potential strike,” the NBC report has said.
The raw poll findings, which I have extracted from the document helpfully posted in full by NBC, show the clarity with which the polled public view the recklessness of the Obama administration. In particular see the “no, will not improve the situation” and “no, not in our national interest” responses.
Older post: There is little point now in switching on any of the mainstream television news channels, for the propaganda campaign has shifted into high gear. The last decade has provided enough practice for such a campaign – war and unrest have become orchestrated as spectacles. There has been Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Egypt, Somalia and Al Qaeda. Hence the machinery used to package another war for the public has been well used. The official reasons given for the imminent attack on Syria are unsubstantiated and lies that are fashioned crudely into a bloodthirsty collection of pretexts to justify a policy planned well in advance.
Shoved aside are the voices that are calling for the investigations to find evidence of the alleged gas attacks inside Syria, to let dialogue and diplomacy dominate all interactions, to give all sides a hearing and count all views.
The voices are there and this is what they have said and are saying:
On 28 August 2013, with United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and other UN officials urging continued cooperation, the UN team investigating alleged use of chemical weapons in Syria visited several locations in the suburbs of Damascus, including impact sites, where it collected additional information and samples. That work must continue, as Syria itself has asked the UN, speaking through its permanent representative to the UN speaking on 28 August 2013 (see this video clip).
On 25 August 2013 the Spokesperson for UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said on 24 and 25 August 2013, the High Representative for Disarmament Affairs, Angela Kane, met with senior officials of the Government of the Syrian Arab Republic. “The purpose of her visit was to seek cooperation of the Government in facilitating an expeditious investigation of the incident in the Ghouta area on 21 August involving the alleged use of chemical weapons,” noted the statement.
The UN Secretary-General instructed the investigating mission which began its on-site fact-finding activities on 26 August 2013, that is, only three days ago. And yet the governments in Washington and London are ferociously claiming there is no need for a UN Security Council resolution on what form of intervention to make in response, and indeed for the investigations to cease so that war can commence immediately.
For the USA and Britain – and their supporters in Germany and France and a few other countries – to threaten to or to militarily strike at Syria is a blatant violation of the United Nations Charter – which has not been mentioned by Barack Obama or David Cameron. The UN Charter requires countries to settle their international disputes peacefully. Article 2(4) makes it illegal for any country to either use force or threaten to use force against another country. Article 2(7) prohibits intervention in an internal or domestic dispute in another country. The only time military force is lawful under the Charter is when the Security Council approves it, or under Article 51, which allows a country to defend itself if attacked. None of the governments now howling for war were attacked.
Writing in The Guardian, Hans Blix reminded us that “In 2003 the US and the UK and an alliance of ‘friendly states’ invaded Iraq without the authorisation of the UN Security Council. “A strong body of world opinion felt that this constituted a violation and an undermining of the UN charter,” wrote Blix. “A quick punitive action in Syria today without UN authorisation would be another precedent, suggesting that great military powers can intervene militarily when they feel politically impelled to do so.” Blix was the head of the UN monitoring, verification and inspection commission from March 2000 to June 2003. In 2002, the commission began searching Iraq for weapons of mass destruction, ultimately finding none.
We can expect that Russia and China, on the UN Security Council, will use their veto to halt an Anglo-American war on Syria. That is why the USA and Britain have been assembling warships in the Mediterranean – were these warships there before the alleged gas attacks in Syria? That is what responsible media should be asking governments in Washington and London.
Nonetheless, there are more reliable news sources to turn to. The Russian news website RT is running a ‘Syria ‘chemical weapons’ crisis live updates’ page. Ria Novosti is also covering the crisis and you will reports such as “Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Iranian counterpart, Hassan Rouhani, have discussed the situation in Syria, condemned the use of chemical weapons, and called for a political settlement”.
And the People’s Republic of China has its global news service, Xinhua, which has reported Syrian President Bashar al-Assad as having said that his country “would defend itself against any foreign aggression, stressing determination to ‘eliminate terrorism’ in the war-weary country”.
The United Progressive Alliance in India, the ruling political coalition at whose centre is the Congress party, has called it “a historic initiative for ensuring food and nutritional security to the people”. By this is meant The National Food Security Bill, which was passed by the Lok Sabha on 26 August 2013.
In recent weeks, criticisms of the provisions of the bill and suggestions for its amendment gathered quickly, from political parties, from state governments, from civil society and NGOs and academics, and from citizens who have followed the twists and turns of the draft legislation since 2010. How many of these have been incorporated into the bill as passed by the Lok Sabha is still unclear, but a government press release stated that ten amendments were approved. I don’t know which ten but these would be small in number compared with the scores of amendments, corrections, modifications and re-draftings suggested by groups and coalitions that have long worked for food security in India and its states.
Sifting through news reports for relevant information, I find that:
(1) The government has said that the word ‘meal’ as used in the approved bill means hot cooked or pre-cooked and heated food and not the packaged food, which was a definition that provoked many when it was spotted in the draft. This is an important amendment as it has an impact on the enormous mid-day meals (for schoolchildren in government schools) and the integrated child development services (ICDS) programmes, which reach tens of millions. The fear was that packaged food would supplant, to the detriment of the children, hot and fresh cooked meals.
(2) As far as I can make out, another approved amendment gives states a year to implement the bill instead of six months. Earlier, under the ordinance (whose passage was roundly condemned), the central government was to determine the number of eligible beneficiaries in each state. Not only was this centrist in nature, it required the process by which beneficiary households were to be identified to be completed within 180 days, even though the guidelines for such identification are yet to be issued by the central government. Moreover, there has been no consultation with the states on this aspect.
(3) There is some reference made to the states determining their approach and measures towards implementing the bill, which will be (or may be) governed by “rules” that are to be drawn up in consultation with the state governments. This is important for, in the text of the Food Security Ordinance the central government reserved the right to introduce cash schemes instead of food in the Rules of the proposed legislation. This had signalled quite clearly its longer-term agenda of dismantling the system of procurement of grain from farmers at notified minimum support prices.
The reportage of the passing of the bill has touched upon a variety of issues and concerns, and here is a selection:
Lok Sabha passes Food Security Bill
Sonia Gandhi’s ambitious food bill gets Lok Sabha nod; UPA gets its ‘game-changer’
The Food Security Bill will cost a lot more than projected
Food security bill: Is it right or fight to food?
Long due, Food Security Bill meets mixed reaction
Food Bill will not raise fiscal deficit: Chidambaram
‘Not against Food Security Bill, but want certain changes’: BJP
Food Security a ‘historic opportunity’ or mere ‘vote security’?
Food security Bill gets Lok Sabha nod as Sonia lauds ’empowerment revolution’
The government has said that the Bill will cover 75% of the rural population and 50% percent of the urban population in all states, coming to an average of 67% for the total national population. This however will use (we await a full reading of the approved amendments that will clarify this matter) the methodology of the Planning Commission for poverty estimates which is to provide the basis for dividing the population between below and above the poverty line. This is the same methodology and ratios that have been soundly discredited.
The point that has been made forcefully by the Communist Party of India Marxist (CPIM) is that these caps on population compromise utterly the right of state governments to decide criteria as contained in the bill. The caps are set by Planning Commission methods, not by state governments themselves. That is why the guidelines that are to be drafted – via consultation, the central government has said – by the state governments must ensure the maximum inclusion, and not the limited inclusion decided by the Planning Commission.
Moreover, the All India Kisan Sabha at its 33rd All India Conference (24-27 July 2013 in Cuddalore, Tamil Nadu) had in a resolution of food security described the policy canvas against which this food security bill has now been passed:
“India has become more food-insecure over the last decade in terms of all three dimensions of food security: availability, access and absorption. Availability has been undermined by policies reducing productivity growth and making grain cultivation unremunerative. Access has been weakened by jobless growth and massive inflation destroying people’s purchasing power. Absorption has been undermined by the failure to invest in safe drinking water and sanitation. All three consequences are directly traceable to neoliberal policies. Yet, the UPA government hypocritically talks of food security and has promulgated a so-called Food Security Ordinance in an attempt to gain political mileage while flouting all norms of parliamentary democracy.”
Documents for reference:
The National Food Security Bill, 2013
The National Food Security Bill, 2011
The National Food Security Ordinance, 2013
Report of the expert committee on the national food security bill
Lok Sabha Standing Committee report on National Food Security Bill
Food subsidy and its utilisation
NRAA – Challenges of food security
New poverty claims from the government of India are being interpreted as (a) proof that the economic liberalisation is working, (b) that the ruling coalition has begun its preparation for the 2014 general election by claiming the largest percentage reduction of poverty ever, (c) that the ruling coalition by lowering the poverty line (and therefore the number of Indians identified as poor) will slash its social subsidies outlay, (d) that the way India measures poverty is desperately in need of repair, if not altogether in need of renewal.
India’s English-language media (in particular the financial and business press) has either repeated what the Planning Commission has released, or has reported reactions to the latest claim from opposition parties. Here is a selection:
“The proportion of people living below poverty line (BPL) has came down from 37.2 per cent in 2004-05 to 21.9 per cent in 2011-12 — a decline of 15.3 percentage points in a period that roughly coincides with the first eight years of the United Progressive Alliance.”
“The sharp drop was attributed to the high real growth in recent years, which raised the consumption capacity. The number of India’s poor fell to less than a quarter of its population in 2011-12, giving the government a reason to cheer amid the recent raft of disappointing macro economic data.”
“Over the last decade, poverty has witnessed a consistent decline with the levels dropping from 37.2% in 2004-05 to 29.8% in 2009-10. The number of poor is now estimated at 269.3 million, of which 216.5 million reside in rural India.”
“One theory is that this is the outcome of the trickle-down impact of the record growth witnessed in the first decade of the new millennium.”
“The BJP slammed the figures as a ‘political gimmick’ and a ‘conspiracy’ of the Congress to deprive the poor of the benefits of government schemes while CPI(M) said it amounted to ‘adding salt to the wounds of the poor’.”
It was only last year, in 2012 June, that the Planning Commission constituted an ‘expert group’ chaired by a former head of the Reserve Bank of India to “review the methodology for the measurement of poverty”. In the hoary tradition of Indian bureaucratese, this expert group is now “deliberating on this issue” (said the Planning Commission) and is expected to submit its report by the middle of 2014.
What is the main substance of the new claim? The note from the Planning Commission (titled ‘Press Note on Poverty Estimates, 2011-12’ and dated July 2013) has stated that the “percentage of persons below the poverty line in 2011-12 has been estimated as 25.7% in rural areas, 13.7% in urban areas and 21.9% for the country as a whole”. [A spreadsheet with the new statewise rural and urban poverty lines is available here.]
Thereafter the myth of the descending poverty line is outlined: that in 2004-05 the respective poverty ratios for the rural and urban areas were 41.8% and 25.7% and 37.2% for the country; that in 1993-94 the ratios were 50.1% in rural areas, 31.8% in urban areas and 45.3% for the country. And, in triumphant tones, that hence the 407 million Indians below the poverty line in 2004-05 had by 2011-12 dwindled dramatically to 270 million – a reduction of 137 million persons over a short seven years! And that indeed, it is all the more significant that for the last eight years it is the UPA (that is, the Congress) that has ruled India. So flows the polemic.
In the eagerness to find ‘rural’ and ‘urban’ and a ‘national’ poverty line, the tales of the deciles of the NSS surveys, referred to only fleetingly, are of importance (for the 43rd, 50th, 55th, 61st, 66th and 68th rounds, all of which we hope are being studied by the Rangarajan expert group). The deciles in the 68th round tell us that in rural India, the average monthly expenditure per person of Rs 153 on cereals would buy 7.3 kg of rice or 8.5 kg of wheat, and that the Rs 40 spent per person on pulses would buy 0.85 kg of pulses, both monthly measures (outside the fair price shop) being well under (13.8 kg and 1.2 kg respectively) the recommended dietary allowances.
A new draft report by the National Climate Assessment and Development Advisory Committee, which advises the government of the USA, has concluded that the evidence for a changing climate has strengthened considerably since the last such report written in 2009.
It noted that many more impacts of human-caused climate change have now been observed. “Corn producers in Iowa, oyster growers in Washington State, and maple syrup producers in Vermont have observed changes in their local climate that are outside of their experience,” said an introductory ‘letter to the people’ and added, “So, too, have coastal planners from Florida to Maine, water managers in the arid Southwest and parts of the Southeast, and Native Americans on tribal lands across the nation.”
Major media organisations have begun reporting on the enormous study, which will be kept open for public scrutiny and comment for 90 days beginning next week. [The many chapters of the draft report can be found here.]
Reuters headlined its report ‘Impact of climate change hitting home, U.S. report finds’ and said: “”The consequences of climate change are now hitting the United States on several fronts, including health, infrastructure, water supply, agriculture and especially more frequent severe weather, a congressionally mandated study has concluded.”
NBC News titled its report ‘ Massive draft report warns warming is changing life in US’ and said: “Global warming is already changing America from sea to rising sea and is affecting how Americans live, a massive new federally commissioned report says.”
In its report, ‘Climate change set to make America hotter, drier and more disaster-prone’, The Guardian said: “The report, which is not due for adoption until 2014, was produced to guide federal, state and city governments in America in making long-term plans. By the end of the 21st century, climate change is expected to result in increased risk of asthma and other public health emergencies, widespread power blackouts, and mass transit shutdowns, and possibly shortages of food.”
The National Climate Assessment and Development Advisory Committee report placed the problem before its readers in a jargon-free introductory section that will appeal as much for its simplicity as for the effort made to encourage public participation.
“Americans are noticing changes all around them,” this section has said. “Summers are longer and hotter, and periods of extreme heat last longer than any living American has ever experienced. Winters are generally shorter and warmer. Rain comes in heavier downpours, though in many regions there are longer dry spells in between. Hotter and drier weather and earlier snow melt mean that wildfires in the West start earlier in the year, last later into the fall, threaten more homes, cause more evacuations, and burn more acreage. In Alaska, the summer sea ice that once protected the coasts has receded, and fall storms now cause more erosion and damage that is severe enough that some communities are already facing relocation.”
On 14 September, India’s ruling political coalition, the United Progressive Alliance, of which the Congress (the Indian National Congress is its full name) is a dominant member, decided to allow foreign investment into a number of sectors. These include what is called ‘multi-brand retail’ and aviation. This government in taking this decision has ignored and overlooked the views and fears of tens of thousands of small shopkeepers, small traders associations, consumer groups and citizens – representing the will of several millions of households – who have publicly expressed in many fora their opposition to permitting foreign control (or consolidated, large domestic control) of the processes of aggregating and selling food products.
The decision, which has been raucously welcomed by the three major industry associations (CII, Ficci and Assocham) and which has been uncritically hailed by the Indian (English-language) business press, represents the whole gamut of neo-liberal policies which have been pursued by the Congress-led UPA government since coming into office in 2004 (and since 2009, when its current term began).
In their shrill and utterly partisan acclaim of the foreign investment decision, the business and financial press – in particular the newspapers Economic Times, Business Standard, Financial Express and Mint – have further underlined their role as propaganda sheets for the industrial-political class and their global partners in the project to loot India.
There has been a differential impact of the more than 20 years of economic liberalisation on the various classes of Indian society. Inequalities have grown rapidly, and there are some sections who have been more adversely impacted. Some sections of the middle class have benefited, at the cost of rural landless labour and the urban poor. Under this neo-liberal regime a large section of the working class is now in the unorganised and informal sector. Those who are on contract work and other irregular forms of employment constitute the bulk of the urban poor. There is also a large section of self-employed persons in the services sector who eke out a subsistence living.
In India, there are substantial classes and sections of society most affected by the policies of liberalisation and the intensified exploitation in the countryside. Landlords, big farmers who are politically well-connected, contractors, moneylenders and regional politicians (those in state assemblies) constitute the rural rich and have intensified the exploitation of the peasantry, agricultural workers and the rural poor. It is this tendency that has deepened India’s agrarian distress, contributed to the food and agricultural crisis – and it is in these chronic circumstances that this Congress-led government has allowed the inflow of foreign investment into food retail, fully aware of all the consequences that decision will heap onto the struggling rural and urban poor.
To illustrate some of these, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) in its Political Review Report in early 2012 had commented: “The issue of land acquisition has acquired a new dimension after the onset of the neo-liberal regime. As part of the capturing of natural resources the corporates and the real estate companies are out to grab land cheaply with the aid of the State apparatus. The peasantry, particularly the small peasantry sees this as a serious threat to its livelihood and especially when corporates and real estate speculators are going to make huge profits out of such lands.”
Can there be an alternative? As far as economic policies are concerned, most of the regional parties adhere to the policies of liberalisation. These regional parties represent mainly the interests of the politically astute and opportunist rural rich, the district bourgeosie who see themselves as brokers of every description to fit ‘reform’ decisions of every prescription. That is why most regional parties take no stand against the ‘liberalisation’ (or ‘reform’, to use the notorious International Monetary Fund-World Bank term) policies which have benefited regional rich too.
The very logic of neo-liberal reforms leads to and perpetuates the rapid growth of a labour force that is increasingly relegated to what is called the unorganised sector. The conversion of regular employment into casual and contractual labour, apart from generating higher profits, is part of the programme to ensure that working class unity remains divided. Larger and larger numbers – from the affected districts, such as the 320 drought-affected districts of 2012 – are joining the ranks of casual, temporary and self-employed workers, with few rights, uncertain wages, in the face of galloping food inflation, with no collective representation or honest political representation. These are the circumstances so ruthlessly exploited by India’s current government to usher predatory forces into our agriculture and food sector.
Hundreds of websites have gone dark to protest proposed legislation in the USA called the PROTECT IP Act (PIPA) and the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA). These proposed laws would place websites in legal jeopardy if they linked to a site anywhere online that had any links to copyright infringement.
This would unmake the Web, just as proposed in the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), and are a dangerous attempt to choke free speech, are a precursor to throttling the exchange of ideas and information which rely on the web. If you don’t want such legislation in the USA, visit AmericanCensorship.org for instructions. The Electronic Frontier Foundation has more information on this and other issues central to your freedom online.