Declaration of Sangharsh Sabha for Food and Work

This national convention organized by the All India Democratic Women's Association, of women of the labouring classes, being held on the demands for a new food policy, cheap rations and regular employment, extends its solidarity with all movements that protect and defend the interests of the working people against the onslaught of liberalization policies. Liberalisation policies have increased inequalities between the rich and the poor and consequent to prevailing male supremacist cultures, between men and women. This convention is part of the wider movement to reverse these policies.
This convention is being held on a day that marks the 10th anniversary of the historic 73rd and 74th amendment that brought over a million women into local decision making bodies through one third reservation of seats. We congratulate the millions of women for their work in the panchayats. However the potential of the step cannot be fully realized when large sections of women are struggling to find strategies just to ensure survival. Thus the demand for food and work is related to strengthening the processes of democracy and women's participation.
This convention demands:
  1. Universalisation of the Public Distribution system. The right to cheap foodgrains through a strengthened rationing system be made a fundamental right.
  2. As a first step towards dismantling of the targeted system, all BPL card holders to be given foodgrains at Rs. 3 per kg rice and Rs. 2 per kg wheat (Antodaya scheme prices). All widows, single adult women, disabled persons, persons over the age of sixty and female headed families, regardless of whether they have BPL cards or not be given immediate access to grains at these prices.
  3. Ration quotas to be individual based not family based.
  4. The right to work be made a fundamental right. Guaranteed employment scheme with minimum wages and parity between men and women. The earlier provision for minimum 30 per cent of work days generated for women, to be implemented.
  5. The foodgrain component of all employment related schemes including food for work schemes be calculated at current Antodaya prices.
  6. A radical change in measurements of poverty, to include other factors such as malnourishment and percentages of family income spent on food requirements as well as collection of gender-segregated data.
This convention protests against and condemns:
The current food policies of the Government of India that are fashioned by the conditionalities of the WTO-World bank IMF. These include the dismantling of the public distribution system and leaving such a crucial issue as food security to the profit based free market. That is why even while 6 crore tonnes of foodgrains rotted in Government godowns the Government refused to distribute the foodgrains to the people at low prices. Substantial portion of the stocks became unfit for human consumption. Equally shocking, the Government preferred to give the foodgrains cheap to other countries rather than feed its own people. 9.6 million tonnes of foodgrains was exported during 2002-2003 most of it at Rs. 4000 a quintal (Rs. 4 a kg) that is less than the price that below poverty line families had to pay in the ration shops. A recent report has revealed that Rs. 3200 crores of foodgrains, approximately 5.2 million tones is "missing" or more likely stolen. This huge scam is indicative of Government's callous approach to such a crucial issue. The current stocks are still high at around 4 crore tonnes. Procurement from the current harvest will increase the stocks. It is essential therefore to urgently put in place a new food policy to avoid a repetition of the present situation.
Failure of targeting
The targeted system of foodgrain access was supposed to bring more relief to the poor by identifying the poor below the poverty line (BPL) and giving them cheaper grains. In fact the targeting system combined with administered hikes in the prices of the foodgrains has virtually destroyed the rationing system.
Such a targeting system based on identification of below poverty line families (BPL) and above poverty line (APL) families in a predominantly poor country like India is intrinsically flawed. The process based on arbitrarily decided "numbers of BPL families in different States" often necessarily becomes one of excluding not including the poor. Vast sections of India's poor have been excluded from the BPL category, a fact recorded by the Government appointed Sen committee.
Shamefully the Government wants to take targeting even further through the World Bank prescription of differentiation of the "moderately poor" from the "very poor." It is like trying to differentiate between hunger and starvation. This is the basis of the Antodaya system, Shri Vajpayee's "birthday gift." To the poor. It is nothing but a method to divide the poor and deny them their basic entitlements.
High prices
In 1996 when the targeted system was introduced by the United Front Government, it cut the price of BPL foodgrains by two thirds of the price of rationed grains, to Rs. 2.50 per kg. for wheat and Rs. 3.50 per kg. for rice. This resulted in an offtake of around 80 per cent of allocated foodgrains. In the subsequent years, the prices of foodgrains have been hiked by about 80 per cent for BPL families, putting the grain out of their reach. The offtake has come down drastically to less than twenty per cent in 2002-2003.
The Government claims that the low offtake means that people do not need the foodgrains. The opposite is the reality. There is a great need but the prices for BPL foodgrains are too high for those whom it is meant for.
The minimum individual requirement is 120 kg of cereals a year. Instead of individual quotas, families are allotted 35 kgs regardless of their size. BPL quotas hardly meet half of a family's requirement.
Flawed Assessments of Poverty
Every Government scheme is now being linked to possession of the BPL card. Apart from the exclusion that takes place in the identification process, the BPL framework itself is being manipulated. The numbers of poor are statistically reduced to show how liberalization policies have benefited the poor. This enables further cuts in minimum entitlements.
Official statistics ignore the huge impact of recurring drought or floods on crores of people. Thus last year although the official estimate of the losses by State Governments was as much as Rs. 35,000 crores, there was no increase in the officially recognized numbers of those below the poverty line.
The recent NSS surveys claim that poverty has been reduced by almost 10 crores in the last decade, from 36 per cent in 1993-1994 to 26.1 per cent. The criteria is extremely flawed and narrow. It does not consider the fact that 90 of a 100 families in rural India and 70 of 100 urban families, spend 60 per cent of their income on minimum food requirements. For the poor the expenditure would be much higher. The National Health Survey shows that over one half of India's children are malnourished, that 48 per cent of adults are malnourished, that almost 70 per cent of women suffer anaemia. Yet in the Government calculations a malnourished child or adult are not considered poor. The survey methods are dubious in most States with whole districts being covered by a few surveyors in just three or four days.
In the current surveys of BPL families being conducted on orders of the Supreme Court, State Governments will be under pressure to show that the numbers of the poor in their respective States conform to the survey reports, regardless of the reality on the ground. The BPL is a political line to implement pro-rich policies, it is a political line to derecognise the poor as being poor.
Official poverty measurements in India have to be radically altered if the real poor are to be identified.
This Convention rejects the distorted and perverted arguments of the Government that such provisions would lead to heavy subsidies that the economy cannot afford. In fact the food subsidy at just around 0.65 per cent of the GDP has remained more or less unchanged for the last twenty years. The food subsidy at present is Rs. 21,200 crores. In the ten years since liberalization, the cuts in taxes to the corporate sector have brought down taxes to around 9 per cent (of GDP) from 11 per cent. The two per cent cut means a loss of Rs. 40,000 crores a year. There are many other examples of Government subsidies to the rich. It is not as if India cannot afford to eliminate hunger, the Governments priorities have to be changed.
This convention draws attention to the terrible cost that girl children and poor women are paying as a result of the current food policy. Food deprivation, the lack of work and the subsequent search for minimum requirements has had an extremely negative effect on other factors that determine women's status.
A woman is prepared to work at even less than the unequal rates she has been receiving, thus her poverty and vulnerability have in fact already led to "labour reform", with a complete suspension in her own mind of her rights to a minimum wage.
With less food coming into the home, she and often her girl child are eating last and less.
Her health status has further worsened affecting her ability to work. The vicious circle of less food and less energy but a greater need to work, most of which is hard manual work, combined with family care, takes a terrible toll of her health on a daily basis.
She is more dependent on the propertied, the powerful, the contractors and supervisors and therefore more vulnerable to sexual abuse and violence.
Poverty has led to more women going into prostitution and also becoming victims of trafficking.
The terrible impact of current food policies on women have to be seen in the context of the entire gamut of imperialist driven globalisation policies.
These include:
  • Privatisation of essential services, hikes in the rates of electricity, water, health, education, medicines that have increased rural debt among the poor just for survival needs. The retreat of Government from the provision of services also leads to an increase in women's unpaid family work.
  • Shrinkage of work days in agriculture to just about thirty to forty days a year. WTO induced general crisis facing Indian agriculture has hit the peasantry hard and the heavier burden has been born by the agricultural work force. There is an increasing switch over to cash crops that require less labour. Labour displacing machinery is being used in many parts of India. Thus unemployment in rural India has grown by almost 7 per cent between 1994 and 2000.
  • Government work projects in rural India have been far less than the requirement. Not even one third of the Prime Minister's assurance, itself inadequate to provide 100 days work per family, has been fulfilled. Evaluation of Government employment schemes show that women have barely got 10 per cent of work days generated.
  • The resultant increase in male migration from villages, including short term migration for women on a large scale, has also led to an increase in family responsibilities and burdens on women.
  • Liberalisation era agricultural policies are targeted to corporatise agriculture. Government land, forest land are all being handed over to commercial interests. Land ceiling legislations are sought to be scrapped. The crucial issue of land reform is deliberately ignored. Thus women's demand for land rights and for joint pattas, so important for their advance has got further marginalized. (should we cut out this section?)
This convention asserts
  • That sarkari prescriptions of women's "empowerment" are meaningless without addressing the important issues listed above, the most immediate being the guarantee to women of the right to food and work.
  • Women's movements in India represent all sections of women. But there can be no advance in women's status unless the immediate needs and concerns of the vast majority of women economically exploited and socially marginalized are addressed.
  • Today the necessary unity of women is sought to be disrupted and divided on the basis of religion.
  • Women say: Distribute Food not trishuls!
This convention resolves
  • To intensify women's struggles on the issue of a new food policy based on universalisation, cheap foodgrains and employment guarantee schemes. The forms will include dharnas, demonstrations, sit-ins, gheraos from the village to State level in the coming month.
  • The convention supports the strike call given by trade unions on May 21. We appeal to all sections to include as an important demand that of the right to food and work This convention also reiterates the demand for passage of the Women's reservation Bill and hopes that it will be included in the May 21 charter.
  • This convention calls upon women to organize rasta rokos, picketing of Government offices on that day.
  • Let it be an opportunity to express women's anger and protest against Government policies.