14th August 1997 - Telegraph
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Goon show
Poor aim


The slaying of the music mogul, Gulshan Kumar, on Tuesday is the latest in a series of celebrity killings in Mumbai this year. In January, the trade union leader, Datta Samant, was gunned down by professional hitmen. Since then, there have been a series of attacks on personalities connected with the film industry: notably producer Rajiv Rai and director Subhash Ghai, who both survived the attempts, and producer Mukesh Duggal, who did not. The nexus between Mumbai’s powerful underworld and the entertainment industry has been an open secret, especially after the bomb blasts in the city in 1993. But killings, which had hitherto been confined to rival gang members, have suddenly become commonplace and a source of great alarm to those involved in big business. This is especially true of the real estate and construction sectors, which are tightly controlled by a network of gangsters, politicians, contractors and even police personnel. A case in point are the textile mills lands in the city, where hired goons are employed to push through sales of prime mill land to developers. Though this provision had initially been made for sick or ailing units, it has proved so lucrative that many profitable units have declared themselves sick in order to dispose of their land. Samant was fighting such land sales and paid the price.

In the case of Gulshan Kumar, the police have said he had already been on the hit list of the Abu Salem faction of the Dawood Ibrahim gang. Despite his highly visible piety, Kumar’s history of open music piracy and the “cover versions” racket does not rule out connections with the mafia. It has also been alleged his phenomenal rise in the cassette business was made possible by underworld funding. Whatever be the case, it is intolerable that the citizens of Mumbai should pay fealty to criminal elements for their survival. Many of the ganglords — like Ibrahim and “Chhota” Rajan — are out of the country. But the remnants of their gangs are engaged in internecine battles over territorial supremacy. The lack of an overriding leader makes their actions even more ruthless. Those who are caught in the crossfire are eliminated, which may have been Kumar’s fate. It is up to the Mumbai police now to move, and move decisively, to cut the gangs to size.    


The prime minister told Parliament last week that the recently restructured “targeted” public distribution system under which the poor were being provided 10 kilograms of foodgrain at half the normal ration price “was not serving any purpose”. It has suddenly dawned on the government that this quota is inadequate and the poor have to buy sizeable quantities from the open market to meet their food requirements. The government feels it cannot increase the quota any further since the Centre is already allocating 17.5 million tonnes to states for the targeted PDS. However, it is revealing that only seven million tonnes or 40 per cent of the total amount of foodgrain distributed through the PDS is meant exclusively for the poor. Since the percentage of people below the poverty line is not far below 40 per cent, this means that the quota for the poor is roughly in proportion to their share of the total population. In other words, the only differential advantage obtained by the poor from the targeted PDS is that they pay a lower price — the per capita quantity purchased is roughly the same.

Not surprisingly, the Union minister for food has suggested the quota for people above the poverty line should be reduced. But he has passed the buck onto the states, saying they should distribute the total amount received by them from the central pool in whatever way they wish. In the past, the states and the left parties have opposed any reduction in the quotas of the non-poor because this would obviously be politically unpopular. But this refusal to ensure proper targeting of the food subsidy completely ignores ground realities. There is no doubt food subsidies of the magnitude prevailing in India today are not sustainable if the government is to restore some semblance of order to its budget. This makes the overhaul of the food distribution system imperative, the primary objective of such a restructuring exercise being to redirect benefits to the really poor. An obvious implication of this is the need to restrict access to subsidized food by excluding the relatively affluent from the public distribution system.

In the past, apologists of the PDS have maintained that restricted access to subsidized food cannot be implemented since there is no administrative mechanism by which the non-target group can be excluded. Only a miniscule proportion of the population pay income tax. Moreover, unlike many other countries, India has no system of identification such as the United States’s social security number. The absence of any such documentation and the almost total lack of computerization of financial transactions suggest that governments simply cannot check households’ incomes, specially when these households are not far from the poverty line. Of course, if administrative problems associated with identifying false claims about belonging to the target group prevent adoption of the restricted access scheme, then the same set of administrative problems render the dual pricing scheme infeasible. Hence, there must be a significant leakage even from the present targeted PDS. That is why the government should seriously consider alternative ways of targeting. One attractive option is commodity based targeting. This involves withdrawing commodities such as rice and wheat from the PDS since these are essentially items consumed by the non-poor, and supplying coarse grains such as bajra and sorghum. The richer sections will then voluntarily withdraw from the PDS.    


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