The finance minister’s package falls far too short of the basic needs of tribals
It is budget time once again. Far away from the talk of lakhs and crores of rupees echoing from Parliament to television studios, a thin adivasi teenage girl stands in a queue at her hostel, her plate in her hand, waiting for her share of the gruel that she is given for lunch every day. Her family depends on the money from the minor forest produce her mother gathers from the forest. Her father has lost the money invested to till the two acres of land they own. The family is now in debt. When the child looks around she sees girls who tell the same stories.
What does the budget have for her? She is a beneficiary of a scheme called the pre-matric scholarship scheme. Run by the central government and followed by most state governments the scheme is to fund an adivasi child living in a hostel, her food and other expenses. The money goes directly into the hostel fund. Pre-budget, the amount paid per child was Rs 525. This works out to around Rs 17 a day or, if the child is fed three times a day, less than Rs 6 a meal. That is, assuming that the entire amount is honestly used for the child’s food.
With food inflation relentlessly increasing, the child makes do with a gruel in the morning, a mixture of very watery dal and rice for lunch and dinner, sometimes with vegetables or an occasional egg – which has stopped in many hostels for the last several months. Sadly for this child, P Chidambaram’s budget does not envisage any stipend increase. The increase in the midday meal scheme will not help her as it is mainly for day schools. Since substantial numbers of adivasi children have to live in hostels as there are few secondary schools near their villages, they do not benefit.
The child’s father was at the moneylender’s when the finance minister enhanced the target for agricultural credit to Rs 7 lakh crore. Her father had heard of farmers’ loan waiver schemes. But every time he had been
turned away from the bank. For generations his family has lived on the land, and there was never a question of ownership. But following colonial British policies, the newly independent Indian state had declared itself owner of all forest land, turning adivasis overnight into encroachers. Without the ownership papers he was not eligible for the loan waiver. So he was forced to go to the moneylender for loans with a high interest rate. The loan waiver scheme means little to him or millions of adivasi farmers unless moneylender loans are included.
Near the child’s village, about 20 km away from the hostel, her mother stops in the forest, just as the finance minister is announcing how his heart beats for her community. In this season she and all those able to work are out in the forest, the men climbing the trees to shake and cut while the women wait below to collect the tamarind. She will spend the next day processing it. It takes four people a day to collect about 50 kg of tamarind. The trader will give her Rs 15 for her two days’ labour of collection and processing, and sell it in the market for Rs 80 a kg. She knows the tendu season is going to start soon. For every 50 leaves she collects, she can hope to receive between 50p and 65p (this varies from state to state and can be as low as 40p) though the trader who buys it from her will get not less than between Rs 1.20 and Rs 2 depending on the quality. Does the budget help her?
The Haque committee set up by the panchayati raj ministry, estimated in its May 2011 report that 275 million adivasi women and men depend on minor forest produce (MFP). The report detailed the rampant exploitation in MFP trade and strongly recommended that the government set up a commission to ensure a minimum support price (MSP) for MFP on the lines of MSP for foodgrains. The estimated cost of procurement according to the committee was between Rs 4,000 and Rs 5,000 crore a year.
The Planning Commission in its 12th five-year plan brought down the cost to Rs 2,000 crore for the entire Plan period, or just Rs 400 crore a year. But in this budget, the second year of the Plan, not a single paisa is allocated for MSP for minor forest produce. Nor is there even a mention of setting up a commission.
The finance minister’s claims sound hollow, judged against the needs of adivasi communities – a decent scholarship programme for adivasi children, special credit for adivasi farmers and minimum support price for minor forest produce.
Statistics of increased expenditure bandied about need to factor in not just the almost 8% inflation rate, but also compare the expenditure as a proportion of the GDP. The expenditure on the Tribal Sub-Plan (TSP) is 0.22% of GDP this year, which is exactly the proportion it was last year.
Even taking the ST population as 8.2%, which is on the lower side, the allocations for the TSP are short by Rs 20,938 crore. Even today only one-third of the 21 central ministries and departments charged to allocate funds for the TSP are doing so. But the trimurti of the prime minister, the finance minister and the Planning Commission chairman, keen to cut expenditures in order to manage the deficit created because of their own flawed policies, think it better to ignore this violation.
The writer is a member of the CPM politburo.
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