Photographs: Reuters Praful Bidwai
It should be called the food insecurity bill. It is too weak and mean to fight hunger, says Praful Bidwai
The government has tabled the National Food Security Bill after a long and fractious internal debate, and amidst clamour from the corporate media about the 'unaffordable' costs of providing food to the millions who need it. There has been a systematic, well-orchestrated campaign to depict the bill as an irresponsible way of doling out largesse, as a recklessly wasteful measure, and as a logistical nightmare, with a price tag so high it could break the back of the Indian economy!
However, contrary to wild claims about the bill's price tag, ranging from Rs 1 to 4 lakh crore, the likely cost will not exceed Rs 27,000 crore, in addition to the existing Rs 67,000-crore food subsidy.
The addition works out to a minuscule 0.3 percent of India's GDP, and less than 2 percent of the revenue, exceeding Rs 5.5 lakh crores, which the government annually forgoes in subsidies, tax write-offs and duty exemptions for businesses.
The amount is about half of what was written off last year via customs duty exemptions for diamond and gold alone.
Not a single Indian state shows a 'low' hunger rating
Surely, even some multiples of this sum wouldn't be too high a price to pay for fighting widespread hunger and malnutrition. With more than 200 million food-insecure people, the largest such number in the world, India ranks a low 66 among 88 countries on the World Hunger Index.
The number of poor or food-insecure people in just eight Indian states is estimated by an Oxford university report at 410 million, more than the food-insecure in 26 countries in sub-Saharan Africa put together.
Shamefully, on the India state hunger report prepared by the International Food Policy Research Institute, Punjab, one of India's most prosperous states, and its biggest granary, rates lower than Gabon and Honduras, among the poorest countries in Africa and Latin America.
Not a single Indian state shows a 'low' hunger rating. Most states, barring four, are in the 'alarming' or 'extremely alarming' category, and those four (Kerala, Andhra, Punjab and Assam) are in the 'serious hunger' group.
Bihar and Jharkhand are worse off than Haiti, which recently suffered a famine which forced people into the abysmal degradation of having to eat mud-cakes.
UPA has tabled a bill that yet again ducks its responsibility
Half of India's children are born to anaemic mothers, and are themselves malnourished. Forty three percent of under-five children are underweight. Most of them will never be able to develop as full healthy adults. This represents a colossal and criminal waste of human potential.
Like poverty, the causes of widespread hunger are structural, rooted in lack of assets, especially land, deep social inequalities, and absence of income and hence purchasing power.
Giving people minimal food security must be a categorical imperative -- and the topmost priority for any government which seeks a modicum of legitimacy.
Yet, the United Progressive Alliance, which was returned to power on the promise of 'inclusive growth' centred on the aam aadmi, has done its best to evade this fundamental responsibility.
It first forced the National Advisory Council to dilute its original recommendation of food security for all through a universalPublic Distribution System to supply food at affordable prices. Then, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh appointed the Rangarajan committee to further reduce food entitlements.
Unfazed by the nationwide outrage caused by the Tendulkar committee's demarcation of the urban poverty line at Rs 32 a day, and the rural line at Rs 26, the UPA has tabled a bill that yet again ducks its responsibility.
Poor overwhelmingly prefer food quotas to cash
The bill confines food entitlements to people below the poverty line, now called the 'priority' group, and pegs it at 46 percent, i.e. the Tendulkar poverty mark plus 10 percent. They will be sold wheat at Rs 3 per kg, rice at Rs 2 and coarse grains at Re 1.
All others, in the 'general' category, will be given foodgrains 'as and when available'. In other words, they have no real entitlement. Provision of subsidised food is made conditional upon 'reforms' in the PDS, and in phases to be notified by the Centre.
This category's per capita food quota will be just 3 kg at half the Minimum Support Price at which the state buys foodgrains. This is much lower than the World Health Organisation norm of 11 kg per person.
The states will have to share the cost of the PDS, in a proportion that hasn't yet been disclosed. Worse, the bill has regressed to an old draft of the food ministry under which subsidies on diesel and kerosene, used by millions of marginal farmers in irrigation pumps and as lighting fuel, will be reduced to limit the food subsidy.
The food entitlement of the 'priority' group will be altered from 35 kg per month now, to 7 kg per person. Thus a family of three will only get 21 kg. However, the government has not yet identified how the 'priority' beneficiaries will be selected.
The existing BPL identification is notoriously flawed because it leaves out millions of rural and urban poor, but includes many non-poor people. The experience in Kerala, and more recently in Tamil Nadu, shows that a universal PDS is far more effective and equitable. The rich typically exclude themselves from it.
The bill links food supply to a 'targeted' PDS despite that system's proven flaws. It also seeks to introduce food coupons and cash transfers. But these have failed in many countries because the poor are often unable to translate coupons into food. And cash transfers are no substitute for actual food provision in a situation of scarcity, lack of food storage, and high or unstable prices. Besides, surveys show that the poor overwhelmingly prefer food quotas to cash.
Lack of better solution other than UID device
The National Advisory Council had suggested identification of the urban poor on the criteria of vulnerability of three kinds: residential, occupational and social. The first group would include homeless people, who are dirt-poor, and slum-dwellers who are likely to be poor. The second would comprise beggars, rickshaw-pullers, construction workers, domestic servants, etc. And the third would include families with no able-bodied men between 18 and 60 years.
Similarly, for rural India, where identifying the poor is more difficult, the NAC had recommended broad socio-economic categories like women-headed households, old people, the disabled, and Dalits and Adivasis. This does risk including some non-poor people like the rare well-off Dalit or the rich widow, but it has the merit of a low probability of excluding the poor.
The bill implicitly rejects this approach, but it isn't clear that it has a better solution other than the Unique Identification Authority device. As discussed earlier in this column, this is a singularly bad scheme, vulnerable to technological failures and mistaken or duplicate identities. Any number of non-Indians have got themselves UID numbers.
UID is open to abuse, including surveillance by shadowy agencies, intrusion into privacy, transfer and pilferage of personal information through computer hacking, and other undesirable consequences. Mercifully, it has been stalled by the Planning Commission and a parliamentary standing committee.
The bill must not pass
One major premise underlying the bill is that adequate food procurement is virtually impossible, the PDS isn't working, and hence entitlements must be pruned as much as possible. But procurement has been rising at about 5 percent a year for 20 years, and now stands at 60 million tonnes -- enough for a universal PDS. Similarly, the PDS is undergoing a revival in many states.
If the premise is wrong, the conclusion is downright deplorable. It marks a retreat from the concept of food security and the state's duty to feed all its citizens.
That's why the bill excludes out-of school children, who are self-evidently deserving of generous food entitlements because what usually keeps them away from school is grinding poverty and family compulsion to make them work at a tender age. A good food security law should have provided for pensions to the aged, who have little or no earnings with which to buy food.
The bill fails to do that. It also contains nothing by way of price guarantees for India's impoverished farmers, over 2.56 lakh of whom have committed suicide since 1995, and who are among our most food-insecure people. You cannot have food sovereignty unless farming becomes sustainable, the agrarian infrastructure improves, and agriculture flourishes and becomes remunerative.
The bill does the utmost to lighten the government's food security obligation. One of its worst features is the force majeure condition in Clause 51. This absolves the central and state governments of any responsibility, including supplying food or paying compensation, in case of 'war, flood, drought, fire, cyclone, earthquake or any act of God.' But it's precisely in such conditions precipitating acute distress and crop failure that food supply becomes crucial to the survival of large numbers of people.
The bill, then, is a travesty of the concept of food security and of fighting hunger in a determined and purposive way as a moral obligation towards the underprivileged people of India, who are yet to fulfil their fundamental need of survival at a minimally humane level. It must not pass.