The Poverty –Free Kerala Scheme, inaugurated by Defence Minister A. K. Antony, in Kerala, is touted at as an achievement of the ruling Front in Kerala. But, it actually points to colossal failure of successive governments to eliminate poverty in the State and the country.

The Congress has ruled the country for more than 50 years. It has also come to power intermittently in the State. The Scheme aims to supply rice at one rupee a kg to 21 lakh families in the State. Later, according to the latest BPL survey, the number of beneficiaries is to rise to more than 31 lakh families. This comes to nearly half of the families in Kerala. (There are about 74 lakh families holding ration cards in the State.)

 If these figures are taken at its face value, it means that half of the population is incapable of buying even rice at market price so that the government would have to supply it at a heavily subsidised price of Re. 1. With the market price of rice hovering over Rs. 25 a kg, the subsidy is more than 95 per cent.

As we shall see later, this figure of 31 lakh is an inflated number. The actual number of families living below the poverty line (BPL) and hence eligible for the subsidised rice is less than 20 lakh. Still, it is a big figure pointing to the failure of governance in independent India during the past 65 years.  

There is little doubt that the rest of India has more poor than in Kerala. The Central government has proposed a scheme covering all the people living below the poverty line in the country. However, the price of rice will be Rs. 3 a kg. It is this rice that the State government proposes to supply to the BPL families in future adding its own subsidy of Rs. 2 a kg. (The Centre recognises only 21 lakh families as living below the poverty line in the State.)

Why was the State providing such a subsidy when the level of poverty is lower in the State compared to most other parts of India? The answer is simply competitive politics.

When the Left Democratic Front proposed to supply rice at Rs. 2 a kg, the United Democratic Front wanted to lower it further to the ridiculous level of Re. 1 a kg. In the same vein, the fronts have added several categories of people living above the poverty line to the list of beneficiaries of subsidised rations.  As the Centre supplies rice low prices only for the BPL families recognised by it, the State has to find more funds to subsidise rice for the APL families. In the process, it spends a larger sum from the exchequer for the APL families than for the BPL families.

It is also known that much of the rations (35 kg a month for BPL families) do not reach the beneficiaries. The off take is never 100 per cent and ration dealers often cheat the beneficiaries regarding weight. There are also many bogus ration cards and the dealers often manage to divert a substantial portion of the ration rice. So, the real beneficiaries of the scheme are the ration dealers and the middle class living above the poverty line.

The number of applications for new ration cards had spurted following announcement of the scheme. The government knows well that many of the applications were bogus. Yet it issued the cards and claimed that the Food and Civil Supplies Department had issued a record number of four or five lakh ration cards in less than three months!

It will, however, be wrong to conclude without saying that there are many people in the country who would not survive without subsidised food grains. Neo-liberal policies have marginalised many farmers and workers and deprived many of them of their livelihood. Hence, it had become imperative that the State support them. Development had never been all-inclusive.

India is seeing a small section of the people becoming rich quicker and a larger portion of the population surviving on subsidised rations. Perhaps, it is wise to throw the safety net wider so as not to miss any deserving person when the rich can afford to pay their taxes.