Sunday, July 12, 2009
Cheap rice is beneficial
The Rs 2 per kg rice is feeding lakhs of people who are going through a bad time
Photo: Ration dealer M.K. Salam
By Shevlin Sebastian
On a rainy evening a steady stream of men and women are arriving at ration dealer M.K. Salam’s shop in Kochi to collect their weekly quota. Among them is A. Kalam, 26, who works as a security guard in a multi-storeyed building. “The rice is good,” he says. “I have been buying it ever since the Rs 2 per kg scheme has been launched. I have no complaints.”
Lakshmanan, 73, a former labourer, says, “Earlier, the rice was of bad quality. Now it has improved.”
Ration dealer Salam says several people have been availing of the scheme. For SC/ST people and fisherfolk they can avail up to 10 kgs a month, while those with a BPL card can get 18 kgs. When asked about the oft-repeated complaint that the rice is of poor quality, Salam scoops up a handful of grains and says, “Look at it. No dust, no stones. This is good rice.”
But Dr. K. Ramachandran Nair, a member of the Kerala State Planning Board says the quality is uneven. “Since Kerala does not produce enough rice, we depend on the central quota,” he says. “The Food Corporation of India should ensure the supply of good grains.”
Finance Minister Dr. T.M. Thomas Isaac says the scheme has become popular with agricultural workers and the unorganised sector.
“At this moment it covers 25 lakh households, but we would like to extend it to 40 lakh households, irrespective of BPL and APL (below and above poverty line) status” he says. “We want to ensure that the minimum needs of the people are met during this time of recession and loss of jobs.”
(Incidentally, the Budget proposal of supplying 25 kgs at Rs 3 per kg to those with BPL status will apply to only 11 lakh families in Kerala).
When asked why the LDF government, which announced the Rs 2 per kg scheme in May, did not get reap any dividends during the Lok Sabha elections, a candid Isaac says, “The people were not satisfied with the overall governance.”
So, does Kerala, where a construction labourer can get Rs 300 per day as wages, need such a scheme?
“They may not need it,” says Dr. K. Narayanan Nair, the director of the Thiruvananthapuram-based Centre for Development Studies. “However, large segments of the informal sector, like workers in agriculture, coir, cashew and the plantation industries have been badly hit by the recession, and need help,” he says. “In the coastal areas the fishermen are facing problems because of a poor income.”
Surprisingly, he says, there is a small section of the population who cannot afford to pay even Rs 2 to buy rice. “There are a lot of invalid and aged people who have no income,” he says. But Nair commends the excellent statewide public distribution network, which ensures that starvation deaths do not occur.
Meanwhile, back at the ration shop the people take all the goodies for granted. Says Salam: “In my 30 years as a ration dealer I have never met a single person who has expressed gratitude for what the government has done.”
Here is an anomaly. Despite high wages and low prices for rice, there is an acute labour shortage in the state. “A large number of youngsters are getting educated,” says Narayanan of the CDS. “They do not want to enter the labour force.”
Isaac says that young people do not want to work in the fields with their bare hands but if there is an option of using a tractor, then they don’t mind using it. “Another reason is that the reserve price for Malayalis is very high,” he says, with a laugh. In other words, they want high wages.
And young people are willing to wait for the right job to come along. “They are not desperate for work,” says Nair of the Planning Board. “They know that even if they do not get a job their family will look after their material needs.”
Another reason for the labour shortage, says Narayanan, is that there are fewer children per family these days. “So, the proportion of young people entering the labour force is on the decline,” he says.
(The New Indian Express, Chennai)