Food Security Act or Food Entitlement Act?
By Devinder Sharma
29 March, 2010
The debate on hunger in the light of the proposed National Food Security Bill is now getting broadbased and therefore meaningful. It is heartening to learn that the focus is shifting from streamlining the Public Distribution System (PDS), from providing food stamps or direct cash transfers as part of food entitlements; to a broader definition of food security that includes physical, economic and social access to food for all for all times to come.
The path to hell is paved with good intentions. Hunger is also the outcome of our policies (read good intentions), and our inability to accept that the delivery system is not delivering. To improve the delivery system, the government is once again thinking of borrowing ideas from abroad. Replacing the existing subsidy mechanism with coupens/cash transfers directly to the poor household is one such move.
Delhi government is reportedly ready to experiment direct cash payments to poor households to buy kerosene.
Dr M S Sawminathan has listed the existing programmes to fight hunger, food and nutritional insecurity. The Ministry of Women and Child Development, Ministry of Human Resource Development, Ministry of Human Health and Welfare, and the Ministry of Food and Agriculture has this impressive list:
-- Integrated Child Development Service (ICDS).
-- Kishori Shakti Yojna
-- Nutrition Programme for Adoloscent Girls.
-- Rajiv Gandhi Scheme for Empowerment of Adolescent Girls
-- Mid-day Meal programme for schools
-- Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan
-- National Rural Health Mission
-- National Urban Health Mission
-- Rashtriya Krishi Vikas Yojna
-- National Food Security Mission
-- National Horticultural Mission
-- Rajiv Gandhi Drinking Water Mission
-- Total Sanitation Campaign
-- Swarna Jayanthi Gram Rozgar Yojna
-- Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Programme
-- Targeted Public Distribution System
-- Antyodaya Anna Yojna
Despite such impressive programmes already running, and the Budget allocation for which is enhanced almost every year, the poor still go hungry. The number of hungry and impoverished has increased with every passing year. UNICEF tells us that more than 5000 children die every day in India from malnourishment.
Therefore, to add another couple of schemes to the existing lot is certainly not going to make it any better for the hungry. Nor a mere tinkering of the approach will help. Replacing the ration cards for the PDS allocations with food stamps is one such misplaced initiative. I am sure if we persist with such borrowed ideas, hunger will continue to multiply. I wouldn't be surprised if 10 years from now, you still end up reading newspapers headlines like India's safety net collapse in Bolangir (read in Hindustan Times today, a full page report http://www.hindustantimes.com/India-s-safety-nets-collapse-in-Balangir/H1-Article3-524453.aspx).
I am a strong supporter of the right-based approach to fight hunger. But to expect another piece of legislation that enshrines Right to Food as the basic human right is not going to make any difference to those who live in hunger and penury, and to the millions who are added to this dreaded list year after year. Right to Food cannot be ensured by simply ensuring on paper half the food entitlements (which has even failed to reach the needy) that a human body needs for normal human activity and growth.
Knowing that the existing programmes and projects have failed to make any appreciable dent, it is high time the opportunity provided by the proposed National Food Security Act be utilised in a realistic manner. It is a great opportunity, and we will fail the nation if we fail to bring about a radical overhaul of the existing approach to fight hunger. The entire debate has to therefore shift from the hands of a few bureaucrats/experts who have monopolised any decision-making when it comes to hunger. It has to be taken to the nation, through a series of regional deliberations.
First and foremost, the time has come to draw a realistic poverty line. The Tendulkar Committee has suggested 37 per cent of the population to be living in poverty. Arjun Sengupta Committee had said that 77 per cent (or 836 million people) of the population is able to spend not more than Rs 20/day. Justice D P Wadhwa Committee has now recommended that anyone earning less than Rs 100 a day should be considered below the poverty line.
Knowing that India has one of the most stringent poverty line in the world, I think the fault begins by accepting the faulty projections. During Prime Minister Narasimha Rao's tenure, Planning Commission had even lowered the poverty estimates from 37 per cent to 19 per cent. Poverty estimates were restored back when the new Planning Commission took over. I am sure if we had persisted with the same poverty line of 19 per cent (in the beginning of 1990s), India would have banished hunger in official records by now.
It doesn't therefore help in continuing with faulty estimates. I therefore suggest that India should have two lines demarcating the percentage of absolute hungry and malnourished from those who are not so hungry. The Suresh Tendulkar Committee suggestion of 37 per cent should be taken as the new Hunger line, which needs low-cost food grains as an emergency entitlement. In addition, the Arjun Sengupta committee's cut-off at 77 per cent should be the new Poverty line.
The approach for tackling absolute hunger and poverty would therefore be different.
Like in Brazil, the time has come when India needs to formulate a Zero Hunger programme. This should aim at a differential aproach. I see no reason why in the 600,000 villages of the country, which produce food for the country, people should go hungry. These villages have to be made hunger-free by adopting a community-based localised food grain bank scheme. I agree with Ela Bhatt when she says that the village needs should be met from within a 100-km radius.
In the urban centres and the food deficit areas, a universal public distribution system is required. The existing PDS system also requires to be overhauled, and this can be done. Also, there is a dire need to involve social and religious organisations in food distribution. They have done a remarkable job in cities like Bangalore, and there are lessons to be imbibed. Nothing can succeed if we do not ensure safe drinking water and sanitation to be part of the hunger mitigation programmes.
Food for all
It is often argued that the government cannot foot the bill for feeding each and every Indian. This is not true. Estimates have shown that the country would require 60 million tonnes of foodgrains (@35 kg per family) if it follows a Universal Public Distribution System. In other words, Rs 1.10 lakh crore is what is required to feed the nation for a year.
In Budget 2010, Pranab Mukherjee has announced a "revenue foregone" of Rs 5 lakh crore, which means the sales, excise and other tax concessions plus income tax exemption for the industry and business. The annual Budget exercise is of roughly Rs 11 lakh crores. Which means, the government is subsidising almost 50 per cent by way of direct sops to the industry, in addition to the what is provided in the Budget itself. The 'revenue foregone' is outside the Budget allocations.
I suggest that Rs 3 lakh crore from the 'revenue foregone' be immediately withdrawn. This should provide resources for feeding the hungry, and also for ensuring assured supply of safe drinking water plus sanitation. In addition to wheat and rice, the food allocation should also include nutritious coarse cereals and pulses.
But all this is not possible, unless some other policy changes that do not take away the emphasis on long-term sustainable farming, and stops land acquisitions and privatisation of natural resources. It has to be supplemented by policies that ensures food for all for all times to come. This is what constitutes inclusive growth. A hungry population is an economic burden. It is also a great economic loss resulting from the inability of the manpower to undertake economic activities. The proposed National Food Security Bill provides us an excellent opportunity to recast the economic map of India in such a way that makes hunger history.
Are we ready?