Op-Ed: How to Have Your Cake and Eat It Too

It simply doesn’t add up. On February 19 this year, Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik boasted before a delegation of representatives from various UN agencies that Odisha had brought a whopping eight million people above poverty line in a decade. Less than six months later, on July 28, he announced that the state would launch its own food security scheme to provide subsidized grains to the 34.44 lakh people left out of the National Food Security Act (NFSA). The only inference that can be drawn by comparing the two sets of figures presented by the CM five months apart is that after registering a whopping 24.5% reduction in poverty between 2004-05 and 2011-12, state has pulled off the incredible feat of adding well over a crore of new poor to the list!

With this kind of steep fall in poverty, the number of beneficiaries under the food security scheme should have come down, not gone up as is happening now. It is amusing how the state that was boasting that it had taken 80 lakh people out of poverty only five months ago now says, without batting an eyelid, that there as many as 3.6 crore people who would starve if not provided rice at Rs. 1 a kg. The more plausible explanation for this dichotomy is that the government is trying to address the dissatisfaction of those who feel ‘left out’ ahead of the next elections irrespective of whether they are eligible for benefits under the scheme or not.

When serious and credible allegations were made about undeserving people making it to the list of beneficiaries under the NFSA in 2016 (Remember the Cuttack Municipal Corporation (CMC) Mayor, who had to quit in disgrace after being found to have cornered a BPL card?), the under-fire state government announced a thorough review of the list and initiated some half-hearted measures to weed out those who had made it to the list fraudulently. But as soon as the Opposition and the media moved on to other issues, the government promptly backed off. Deserving beneficiaries, who had made way for the undeserving in the list, naturally felt aggrieved. Even undeserving people felt aggrieved when they found that the state had no intention of striking off the names of other undeserving people from the list. It is this large population of the aggrieved, both genuine and fraudulent, that the government was trying to address when it announced the inclusion of 34.44 lakh new beneficiaries in the list since it knew they can mean the difference between winning and losing the next election.

In his Independence Day address last year, the Chief Minister had said poverty would be ‘completely eliminated’ from Odisha by 2036, when    the state would celebrate 100 years of its formation. But the way things are going under BJD rule, far from vanishing, poverty looks all set to increase by then if the party stays in power much longer.

“Why should we get so worked up if the government wants to provide subsidized rice to a few lakh more, deserving or otherwise?” one worthy argued in a long post on Facebook on Tuesday. He certainly has a point. But in that case, wouldn’t the 60 lakh or more people who will still remain ‘left out’ of the scheme have a legitimate right to feel aggrieved? Since being poor is not an essential requirement, why should they be discriminated against?

Here is a suggestion that the Naveen Patnaik government may consider. Let everyone in the state get the benefit of the scheme irrespective of their economic status so that no one can complain that the tax paid by him/her is being ‘wasted’ in providing cheap grains to the undeserving. Let everyone get cheap rice and at the same time bear the cost. That would be just and fair would leave no one whining!

This business of running with the hare and hunting with the hound has gone on for far too one. It is time to call the government’s bluff.

(DISCLAIMER: This is an opinion piece. The views expressed are author’s own and have nothing to do with OTV’s charter or views. OTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same)