Bardoligam, Chikhligam, Gandevigam and Adulgam are four villages situated on the fringe of the Golden Corridor between Mumbai and Ahmedabad, one of India’s most industrially developed zone. Yet, it is here that majority of poor, especially the most vulnerable sections among them, fail to get the social benefits they are entitled to, says senior Amsterdam-based scholar Jan Breman.
In his recent study, “The Practice of Poor Relief in Rural South Gujarat”, Breman, emeritus professor of sociology, Amsterdam Institute for Science Research (AISSR), University of Amsterdam, has suggested that, following Gharib Kalyan melas in the recent past, there has been a big talk about “a slow but steady decrease in poverty due to an accelerated pace of overall economic growth, is said to have marginally or even significantly reduced the vulnerability of people who have no other means of livelihood than their labour power.” However, the senior scholar, basing his study on four South Gujarat villages, has stated their destitution has remained “understated in literature”, and though the state had initiated attempts to redress the vulnerability of these, this has actually not happened.
The study is based on fieldwork by collecting data on poverty-ridden households which wholly or partially lack the labour power required to make a living — the old aged, single women and the physically or mentally handicapped of all ages, is based. The villages studied are Bardoligam in the Surat district, Chikhligam in Navsari district, Gandevigam in the Navsari district and Atulgam in the Valsad district. Situated on the fringe of what is known as the golden corridor, which is the hub of industrial-urban zone between Mumbai and Ahmedabad, the study has found that out of the 101 households surveyed, as many as 152 individuals “should have been recipients of social benefits because of old age, widowhood or physical /mental disability”.
However, he says, “Out of this total only 29 were granted such benefits – 22 an old age pension, six a widowhood allowance and one an allowance as a handicapped youngster.” He insists, “Exclusion from statutory benefits more often than not is all the more serious. It basically means that the working poor are supposed to take care of those who do not belong to households in which other members are earning an income. They have to provide for the livelihood of the non-working poor. Worse off are elderly men and women as well as widows who run their own households and, because of their inability to be gainfully employed, are badly in need of outside support for minimum requirements.“
Breman finds “identifying the categories of vulnerability is highly uneven”. According to him, “Although most men and women of old age do not get a pension, a fair share of them (22 out of 52) have managed to find access to this provision. But again, their inclusion shows an enormous variation even between localities situated at a short distance from each other.” Indicating that the disproportionate distribution is particularly skewed spread in Chikhligam, he says, during interviews, “many of them said to have been completely unaware about the existence of these benefits even if a neighbouring household had found access to them. Neither did they make any effort to come to know whether they would qualify.”
Pointing towards how the poor are neglected, Breman says, “The state does not come to the clients but the clients have to approach the state.” He adds, “A lot of paperwork is required beyond the reach of the people.” They are “unable to fill up forms, collect certificates and other documents testifying to their credentials – below poverty line or BPL card, photograph, voters’ card, birth/death certificate, a school diploma, receipt for payment of house tax or electricity bill and the most puzzling requirement of all, authenticated proof of their monthly or annual income, evidence of their identity which they require when handing in their application.”
The poor also have to face other types of hurdle – for instance, time and again they are made to make costly trips to the sub-district or district headquarters with sets of papers painstakingly brought together. These have to be “submitted but to no avail. Sometimes hurdles are also found too difficult to cross. For instance, how can a widow show proof that her annual earnings are less than Rs. 2,400 or below Rs 4,500 for the whole household of which she happens to be part and parcel? Her saying so will have to be put in writing in an affidavit signed by her and accepted by an official willing to be persuaded that her statement is correct. But this leniency has to be bought for a couple hundred rupees, a lot of money as well as an investment with a high risk of non-delivery”.
Pointing out that “the high percentage of non-inclusion cannot be attributed mainly to the failure of the non-working poor to find access to the social welfare schemes”, Breman says, “The state is to be blamed for not reaching out to alleviate the plight of its poorest clientele.” For instance, on becoming widowed a woman is entitled to a one-time allowance of Rs 10,000 immediately after the demise of their husband. The application has to be “processed at the sub-district level with the mamlatdar as the authorising agent. Forms for an old age pension allotted to men and women from the age of 60 years onwards (of monthly Rs 200 between 60-65 years, increased to Rs 400 above 65 years) have to be submitted to officials at the district collectorate with the prant officer, who is second in command to the collector, as the sanctioning authority.”
Breman says, “The Social Defence Department at the district level handles applications for a regular widow allowance amounting to Rs 500 per month with a supplement for a child of Rs 80 up to a maximum of two children. The same agency is in charge of processing applications submitted by the severely handicapped. Deserving cases are entitled to a monthly allowance of Rs 200 for youngsters less than 17 years of age, increased to Rs. 400 for the age bracket between 18-64 years. Between the various administrative echelons and also between the various departments involved at either the district or subdistrict level there is a lack of coordination and communication which is counterproductive to the interests of the clientele.”
He points out, “Adding to the confusion created in and by the government apparatus is that the chain of officials handling the files are not instructed to report back on the action taken. The talati, who is in charge of the village administration, has no idea who is beneficiaries of social provisions and neither does he receive information on applications submitted, pending or rejected. Many government officials are not familiar with the range of social provisions made available. The talatis of both Gandevigam and Chikhligam had only a faint notion of the differential pensions for the old age, the first one of Rs 200 paid solely by the Gujarat government for the elderly from 60 to 65 years and the second one for men and women above 65 of Rs 400 out of a fund to which both the Gujarat government and the Central government each contribute Rs 200 monthly.”
Breman believes that in view of the arbitrary and biased way in which the below poverty line (BPL) survey was carried out, and subsequently adjusted downwards for political reason, “it should come as no surprise that there are many cases of vulnerability which escape formal registration. Having failed to become classified as poor such people are incorrectly exempted from state provided social benefits.” The result is that “of the 152 potential beneficiaries only 29 had been granted the allowance to which they are entitled.” A random sample survey of BPL households in the four villages of under survey suggested the predicament of the non-working poor and how they suffer.
Apart from “incorrect exclusion” from the BPL, Breman says, the sample suggested another problem – “inclusion for the wrong reasons”: “A striking example is an elderly Anavil woman in Gandevigam who receives a widow’s allowance. Although certainly not well endowed, her condition is not so bad that she can be considered a fitting case for state benevolence. Her name is not included in the BPL list, but belonging to a family of landowners she also receives a monthly stipend from the fund that the dominant caste has set up for needy members. In other words, there are other criteria for deciding on applications than the ones formally put on record.”
In his concluding remarks, Breman says, “Self-reliance cannot be the organizing principle for providing social security and protection at the bottom of the rural economy when the working poor barely succeed to take care of their own basic needs let alone that they can be held accountable for looking after the non-working segment of the old aged, single females and handicapped in their midst. To at least alleviate the misery in which both the non-working and working poor are entrapped in South Gujarat, the state has to be more forthcoming and forceful in extending social benefits as well in the generation of public employment than it has been so far.
— Rajiv Shah