The Pinarayi Vijayan government in Kerala has decided to stop playing Mahabali during Onam. For the first time ever, Supplyco will not hand out Onam kits to the poor.
The official line is that it would be a fiscal blunder to engage in such Santa Claus-like generosity during Onam. Fact is, the Onam kit is a humble food basket, even a symbolic one, having essential stuff like rice, coffee, pulses and chilly in very small quantities that together costs just Rs 120. Unaware of the government's decision, many had queued up in front of Supplyco outlets during the last few days to get their annual quota.
After the LDF had come to power, they had pared down the Onam kit beneficiaries to just below six lakh families, to the poorest of the poor or the yellow Antyodaya Anna Yojana (AAY) card holders, citing fiscal burden. So even if they had provided the kits they would not have spent more than Rs 8 crore. (During the last Onam of the UDF tenure, Onam kits were distributed to 16 lakh families.)
According to Civil Supplies Minister P Thilothaman, the shrinking of the beneficiary list was a financial necessity. “The beneficiary number in the APL priority list (those right above the BPL category) had shot up to 1.54 crore. Distributing kits to all of them would have been a huge burden,” Thilothaman said.
So the LDF government first brought down the Onam kit beneficiary list to 5.80 lakh beneficiaries, to just AAY card holders. And now, in its fourth Onam season, has deprived even these AAY card holders, “the poorest of the poor”, of their annual Onam kit.
Thilothaman said it was a superficial reading of the situation. “Already the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe Development Department is distributing Onam kits to all tribal and scheduled caste families in the state. The vast majority of AAY card holders belong to these two categories,” Thilothaman said. In other words, the vast majority of the poor will continue to get their Onam kits.
Further, the minister said the AAY card holders get their usual benefits like 35 kg of rice and 5 kg of wheat a month for free. “The Centre gives us just Rs 3 for a kg of rice and Rs 2 for a kg of wheat,” Thilothaman said, hinting at the financial stress the state has to bear. (The wholesale market price of common rice is jut over Rs 30.)
The minister, however, was silent about sugar. The sugar subsidy that poor families had enjoyed has virtually been lifted. Even for AAY families, sugar is now distributed at a price of Rs 21 a kg. (The wholesale market price of sugar hovers between Rs 37 and Rs 38 a kg.)
Thilothaman said there were other things, too, that the government was doing this season to make up for the loss of Onam kits. “The 48 lakh-plus families in the 1,038 flood-affected villages in the state will get free ration this season. While AAY card holders in these villages will get 35 kg of rice as usual, others in the village irrespective of their economic status will get 5 kg of rice for free,” Thilothaman said.
Former Civil Supplies Minister Anoop Jacob is amused at his successor's claims. “The Onam kit is given in addition to all the benefits the minister says the government is now providing. It is not as if the SC/ST kit was something that was started this year. It was there even during the UDF tenure,” Anoop Jacob said.
The minister agreed but said there was redundancy. “The SC and ST families that secured kits from the SC/ST Development Department do not pick the Onam kits provided by the Supplyco and so there will be no takers for a large number of kits,” Thilothaman said.
Anoop also said the Civil Supplies Department need not spend a single paise for the SC/ST kits. “The SC/ST department will give them the money and the only thing the Civil Supplies people need to do is package these food items. In fact, the Civil Supplies Department earns from this transaction,” he said.
According to Anoop there is no justification in stopping this tradition of Onam kits. “The government has no qualms about splurging for Onam celebrations and for the unnecessary renovation of government offices but when it comes to a token help for the poor during Onam they hide behind a fiscal crisis that is of their own making,” Anoop said.