The landmark Food Security Bill (FSB), the present government believes, is India’s best shot at battling chronic malnutrition and hunger. The Union Cabinet has approved an ordinance to implement the Right to Food. Right to Food aims to remove hunger in India by providing rice, wheat at a subsidised rate of Rs 3 and 2 respectively. India is a food surplus country but hunger continues to persist; State government programmes provide rice and wheat at 2 and one rupees at Fair Price Shops/PDS. The very fact people still go hungry in states where the State governments have already been providing rice at Rs one merely goes on to drive the point that hunger will not fade away by merely provisioning it at a cheap rate; it can be removed by reaching out the most poor and make them able to earn livelihood and provide them subsidised food as an interim measure. After all a nation can be proud only if every citizen becomes self-reliant.
But for the moment, rather than bringing in reforms in purchase, storage and distribution of food, mere announcement of popular scheme with an eye to the coming election will distort our agriculture and will have great adverse consequences for our country’s economy.
Questions persist over the very concept of the Bill. Is it not extravagant to subsidise food for such a large part of the population when the poor constitute only 30 per cent of the population? Can a poor country afford such spending? Isn’t the Food Bill just corruption by another name? Wouldn’t the Bill lead to a virtual takeover of the grain trade by the Central government? As a rising tide lifts all boats, should we not invest in growth rather than spend on consumption? Organiser Representative spoke to Chairperson of Gujarat State Commission for Protection of Child Rights Prof Dr Ramesh-wari Pandya, who is also Faculty and Head, Department of Extension and Communication, MS University, Vadodara, on these issues. Excerpts:
How do you assess the impact of Food Security Act on Fiscal Deficit?
This is a mega programme and will require a huge food subsidy. The cost of it will go up from 0.8 per cent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) to around 1.1 per cent of GDP. This is a serious increase in a situation where the government does not have enough resources as it is. Rice for an example; where government purchases the grain at a cost of 18 rupees per kilogram, this includes the price it pays to the farmers, the cost of stocking the food and distributing it.
Experts estimate that the actual cost of implementing the right to food and putting in place a sustainable food security programme could be as high as Rs.2 trillion per year for the next three years. The present government has not taken into account other costs that need to be made to create storage facilities, improving transportation and increasing agricultural production to meet the requirement. In addition the cost of agriculture will rise and so will the minimum support prices, thereby adding to the financial burden.
Secondly, in case of a drought or a flood, the production of rice and wheat might come down dramatically. If we depend on the global market then the global price would shoot up along with the subsidy Bill.
Do you think PDS is the viable delivery mechanism to execute this programme?
As the Bill says, government intends to use the Public Distribution System for delivering subsidies to the poor. Extending the PDS might make another channel for these leakages. The PDS is already used to deliver food subsidies to the poor but around 51 per cent of the food delivered that way is currently lost to leakages. It is sold on the open market for a higher price. Thus the PDS system of FBS makes people antagonistic toward the idea of the food Bill because of its existing problems of leakage, corruption and high costs of storage and distribution.
What are the problems with the storage of foodgrains?
Today India has 81 million ton foodgrain as buffer. It requires about 45-50 million tons today to provide PDS led subsidised foodgrain. The other 30 million food is rotting as there is no store-house to keep that foodgrain. The subsidy to store foodgrain constitutes about 23 per cent of the total food subsidy. This merely underscores the fact that FCI is simply incapable of storing food. The situation would be compounded once the government starts acquiring more food grain to meet the right to food.
Do you think universal application of the programme is possible in a diverse country like ours?
Subsidy on rice and wheat with an assured minimum support price will distort the agro-climatic diversities of India. Each region is endowed with specific soil, moisture, temperature, rain fall that is right for a particular crop. With assured subsidy, people will move from minimum support price crops than crops which have no assured support price and depends on market forces. The government in the process would destroy our food basket. Jowar, ragi, which are drought resistant crops, will fade away slowly from field.
How the beneficiaries will be classified in the programme?
This is another issue. How to target the beneficiaries? What are the indicators of the poor? Who is really poor and who is not?
The Bill says that states will provide the list of the poor but they have no such records. The government has constituted various committees to look at measures of poverty but they come up with different numbers. The scheme classifies two categories of beneficiaries, who shall be identified by the Central government and the states. The Bill does not specify criteria for the identification of households eligible for PDS entitlements. The Central Government is to determine the State-wise coverage of the PDS, in terms of proportion of the rural/urban population. Hence, the process of classifying beneficiaries is complex and would, also, lead to corruption.
Do you think that this Bill will eradicate malnutrition?
One more reason for disapproval stems from the different ways in which hunger and malnutrition are defined. Many scholars argue that eradication of malnutrition requires more than just removal of hunger. Simply providing for the basic minimum food is unlikely to do enough to improve India’s ignominious malnutrition levels. Food security is not sufficient for nutrition security. For nutrition, one needs to focus on children and women.
Many experts point out that many Indian states are already providing cheap food to the majority of their people, and yet many of them continue to have high rates of malnutrition. Hence, the FBS in its present form will fail to address the issue of malnutrition.
How do you see the issue of self respect and self sufficiency vis-à-vis Food Security Bill?
The most important issue among such is the issue of self-respect. The FSB is an attempt to undermine the self-respect of the nation. The nation really needs to introspect about its future as a leader of the free people of the world if it still treats its own poor as patients who need a ventilator. The problem with assisted ventilation is that it needs to be removed after a decent time and the patient is allowed to try to respire on his own. With the FSB, the so called “poor and destitute” of India shall remain on an eternal ventilator, bereft of opportunity and motivation to think big or work hard. The FSB shall incentivize claims of backwardness and poverty rather stories of successful migration across the poverty line. Everyone loves to have things the easy way. Why go out and find work when the government offers to throw cheap, highly subsidised food at someone?
This is not responsible governance. This is the worst form of forced re-distribution of resources that is humanly imaginable. And the timing of its applicability seems to be an attempt of gaining the vote-bank politics for the continuation of the informal board being hung at 10, Janpath.