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'Scheming' for the poor

Even as the Congress-led UPA government geared up to reap the political benefits of the food security scheme, the shocking incident in a Bihar school wreaked havoc on their plans, opening up a Pandora’s box. Only in November last year, the Supreme Court commissioners’ report exposed gaping holes in food supply programmes under the Integrated Child Development Scheme in four states, including Maharashtra.


Representation Pic

These aren’t the only two incidents that illustrate the powerlessness of the underprivileged in our country. A few days ago, the state assured the Bombay High Court that a high- level probe would be conducted in the matter of huge purchases meant for the tribal population. A number of schemes targeted at the welfare of the needy that were implemented by different departments have also been mired in controversy.

Be it the slum redevelopment scheme in Mumbai or the public distribution system, almost every programme meant for the poor has come under attack for misappropriation and malpractices.

Implementation is far from satisfactory, and beneficiaries have a long list of complaints. The Mantralaya corridors are still abuzz with whispers about huge purchases of furniture and toys made for school children under the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan, in which the e-tendering process was bypassed, obscuring transparency in the transactions. And there are many sordid tales involving the ashram schools and hostels run by departments of social justice, tribal welfare, nomadic tribes and education.

In our state, the mid-day meal scheme provides cooked food to 72 lakh children studying in Stds I-V and and 40 lakh students in Std VI to VIII, say figures for the year 2012-13. A dizzying amount of money is spent by the state to provide cooked food to students. It is estimated that from April 2012 to March 2013, Rs 1,304 crore was expended just on supplying cooked food, whereas the cost of rice purchased was Rs 177.73 crore. Transportation of the same cost Rs 72 crore. Another Rs 7.66 crore was spent on remuneration for cooks and assistants. But guess who claimed the lion’s share of the finances? No prizes for guessing. A whopping Rs 18.87 crore was spent just on supervision, monitoring and evaluation of the scheme, even though head-masters and teachers at the schools were supposed to have made these tasks a part of their daily routine.

Utensils made another large dent in the state finances, claiming Rs 33 crore. This, after Rs 12 crore was spent in 2011-12 for the same purpose.

For construction of kitchens, funds worth Rs 110 crore were spent in 2011-12, and Rs 33 crore in 2012-13. In all, implementation of the scheme in Maharashtra is estimated to have cost Rs 2,103 crore in 2012-13. But results have been far from proportionate with the expenses. Ask any student from tribal, hilly or remote areas about the quality of their meals, and they will tell you that they feed their khichri to their cattle, as it is tasteless.

Also, the state is silent on funds spent on over 19 lakh ‘ghost’ students last year, revealed in the school census drive conducted in 2011. Who ate the khichri that was meant for these students? Do all the students eat khichri every day? The state has not bothered to ask for the balance sheet, nor has the yearly budget been adjusted according to needs.

A state report also says that students from financially stable homes of the middle class and lower middle class refuse to accept the food supplied in these schools. So the question is, where are all the funds are going?

New schemes and projects are kicked off without assessing the outcome of old schemes, or learning the lessons they offer. To prepare for the implementation of the Food Security Project, the state has undertaken the huge programme involving the construction and repair of godowns. Godowns are being built with Rs 500 crore obtained from a loan from NABARD. Taking into consideration the current state of affairs in the public distribution system, it seems more likely that the scheme will invite more controversies than be a success of any measure. At the end, would it be wrong to say that schemes in the name of the poor are in fact targeted to benefit a section of people who are involved directly or indirectly in running the system?

— The writer is Political Editor, MiD DAY¬†

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