When a widow sells her hair for food

In theory, the social programmes of the government are designed to prevent just this.

Published: 12th January 2020 04:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 12th January 2020 10:58 AM   |  A+A-

Prema with her kid

Prema with her kid

Last week, 31-year-old Prema, a resident of Mannarpalayam near Salem who lost her husband last year, had no money to feed her three kids aged seven, four and two. She asked her relatives and neighbours and failed to get any help. Just then a wig maker passing by offered money for hair.

Without a second thought Prema shaved her head. It got her Rs 150. She used Rs 100 to buy food for her children. She then went to a shop to buy an insecticide. The shopkeeper, suspecting her intention, did not sell it to her. The tragedy was averted and subsequently, civil society stepped in with donations.

And this incident happened in Salem, in Tamil Nadu, the top performer in NITI Aayog’s sustainable development index and one of the better-administered states for social programmes. Imagine what may be happening in lesser developed and poorly governed but populous states? The incident begs the question; 'What if?'

In theory, the social programmes of the government are designed to prevent just this. Think about it. The government runs 30 centrally sponsored schemes – and topping the list is the National Social Assistance Programme designed to prevent deprivation and death.

The NSAP is a social security scheme for Below Poverty Line households. It comprises five separate welfare schemes namely, Indira Gandhi National Old Age Pension Scheme, Indira Gandhi National Widow Pension Scheme, Indira Gandhi National Disability Pension Scheme, National Family Benefit Scheme and Annapurna.

India runs the world’s largest food security programme, spending over Rs 1.8 lakh crore. The MGNREGS is designed to provide a livelihood for survival — the total spend this year is Rs 60,000 crore. The subsidies bill of the central government for the year is Rs 3.38 lakh crore – roughly Rs 900 core a day. Between them, the Centre and the states spend over Rs 13.9 lakh crore on the social sector of which over Rs 5.5 lakh crore is aimed at mitigating distress and deprivation.

It could be argued that the incident in Tamil Nadu is a one-off. Sadly, the data put out by the Niti Aayog in its latest report on sustainable development goals does not inspire the alternate view. The all India average has slipped on the poverty index from 54 to 50, with the number of states in the red (below national average) rising from seven to 14 states. India has also slipped on the hunger index from 48 to 35 with seven states lagging. Ten of the large states have poverty levels significantly higher than the national average of 21.9 per cent and the most populous states are worse off.

It is not for want of programmes. For instance, the Rural Development Ministry implements a parade of acronyms MGNREGS, DAY-NRLM, DDU-GKY, PMAY-G, PMGSY, NSAP and SAGY — the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, Deendayal Antyodaya Yojana – National Rural Livelihoods Mission, Deen Dayal Upadhayay – Gramin Kaushalya Yojana, Pradhan Mantri Awaas Yojana – Gramin, Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojana, National Social Assistance Programme and Saansad Adarsh Gram Yojana.

Clearly, many are falling through the yawning and often fatal gaps in the design and implementation of social programmes for alleviation of poverty and hunger. The NITI report declares that 85.26 per cent of the people who demanded jobs under MGNREGS were provided employment – in effect 14 per cent people were denied, and this is a justiciable law. Disbursal of income support to farmers, under the PM Kisan scheme, which has over 9 crore registered beneficiaries, lags at the halfway mark of budgeted allocation as it is haunted by poor classification and incapacity of the administration in the states.

There is poverty, hunger and shadow hunger. Almost every state is in the red when it comes to malnutrition. In the last three years, India would have spent a total of over R70,000 crore under the Integrated Child Development Scheme, the umbrella programme for child nutrition and healthcare, and over Rs 92,000 crore on the National Health Mission. It is true that the expenditure on health is inadequate and it is equally true that the spending is less than effective.

The National Food Security Act has a special focus on nutritional support to women and children. This translates into a guarantee of nutritious meal to pregnant women and lactating mothers during pregnancy and six months after the childbirth. Pregnant women are also entitled to receive maternity benefit of not less than Rs 6,000. Children up to 14 years of age are entitled to nutritious meals as per the prescribed nutritional standards. Is the design delivering the outcomes?

The latest report of The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation on child nutrition released this week, says of the 176.1 million children in the world who were stunted in 2017, India accounted for 51.5 million.

Of the 58.3 million children wasting across the world, 26 million were in India. Over 40 per cent of the children born in India are anaemic. Maternal mortality is 122 per lakh live births, over 50 per cent of pregnant women are anaemic and yet only 36.4 of eligible beneficiaries received maternity benefits.

The story of Prema is a wake-up call for a review of the social programmes and the state of affairs in the states. Piety of intent is never enough.

(The writer is the author of Aadhaar: A Biometric History of India’s 12 Digit Revolution, and Accidental India and can be contacted shankkar.aiyar@gmail.com )

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