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Food Security: Path To Hell They Say Is
Paved With Good Intentions

By Devinder Sharma

24 June, 2011
Ground Reality

(I am being asked repeatedly to comment on the proposed draft bill on food security prepared by the National Advisory Council. Here is my general response)

The way to feed the hungry and impoverished in India – the world’s largest population of hungry and malnourished – also seems to be driven by good intentions. My only worry is that the proposed National Food Security Act will end up pushing the hungry even more deeply into a virtual hell.

From what I read in the newspapers, however, and from what is emerging from the latest draft bill on Food Security proposed by the National Advisory Council, the path being developed is unlikely to deviate from the present direction to hell for the hungry. If the primary objective of the new law is simply to re-classify below-poverty-line (BPL) families by identifying who is entitled to receive 25 kg (or 35 kg) of grain (wheat and rice) per month at a price of Rs 3/kg, then I think we have missed the very purpose of bringing in a statutory framework to ensure the right to food. In any case, it has followed the same faulty principle of accessing the number of beneficiaries based on the stringent poverty line estimates which have been widely questioned.

Let us first be clear that the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) had ranked India 66th in Global Hunger Index for 88 countries, in 2008. Hunger multiplied at a time when we had the bogus Public Distribution System operative, made more efficient by the addition of the prefix 'targetted'. Hunger also multiplied while the Supreme Court was seized of the issue, and had even constituted an office of Food Commissioner (set up in response to a petition in Supreme Court) monitoring the food distribution supplies. Hunger and malnutrition grew at a time when we had more anganwadis set up, and more schools being provided with mid-day meals.

There is something therefore terribly wrong in our approach. The Ministry for Food and Agriculture, Ministry for Human Resource and Development, Ministry for Rural Development, Ministry for Child & Women Development had among them 22 national schemes or programmes, and yet hunger goes on multiplying.

At a time when the government is now planning to bring out a National Food Security Bill, which primarily ensures that every poor family gets a minimum of 35 kg of foodgrains at Rs 3/kg, it is time to ask whether the proposed bill will mean anything for the poor and hungry? How can we ensure that hunger is removed by relying on the same bogus PDS system that has failed to deliver in the past 40 years? Isn’t the proposed Food Security Act like “old wine in a new bottle’?

Hunger needs more than PDS ration, and that is where we are failing to focus on. Even the Right to Food campaign has failed to see beyond the entitlements, and its approach is no different from what the Empowered Group of Ministers is recommending. The question that needs to be asked is whether hunger will be removed if the food entitlement is raised from 25 kilos to 35 kilos? Will hunger disappear if the destitute and disabled and the homeless are also included in the list?

The answer is a big NO.

Unless we remove the structural causes that acerbate hunger, and most of these relate to agriculture and management of natural resources, India would not be able to make any significant difference in reducing hunger. Let me therefore look at some of the commonly raised fears/questions, and see how we can make the proposed food security act meaningful and effective.

India already has numerous programmes for fighting hunger, why do we now need a National Food Security Act?

It is true that we have an impressive list of programmes to fight hunger, and the budget allocation for these is increased every year, and yet the poor go hungry. The number of hungry and impoverished has increased with every passing year. India has more than a third of the world’s hungry. Several studies 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. If we persist with such borrowed ideas, hunger will continue to multiply.

I am a strong supporter of the right-based approach to fight hunger. But 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.

Hunger is basically outcome of our wrong policies and our inability to accept that the delivery system is not delivering. At present some 22 government programmes exist to fight hunger and to provide food and nutritional security. These programs run by various Ministries range from Mid-day Meal Programme to National Food Security Mission, and Antyodaya Anna Yojna to Annapoorna Yojna.

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 was a great opportunity, and we are surely let down by the failure of NAC to bring about a radical overhaul of the existing approach to fight hunger. The entire debate has shifted from the hands of a few bureaucrats and self-appointed experts who have monopolised any decision-making on hunger. It has to be taken to the nation, through a series of regional deliberations.

Why can’t we strengthen the existing Public Distribution System (PDS) to make it more effective?

Justice Wadhwa committee appointed by the Supreme Court has very rightly dubbed the running PDS as a bogus programme. It has very clearly brought out that the PDS has collapsed in several States, and is languishing in several others. It is a system that is engulfed in corruption, leakage and inefficiency.

Much of the food from the PDS is diverted in the open market. PDS grains are also diverted to neighbouring countries like Nepal, Burma, Bangladesh, and even Singapore. As Justice Wadhwa says 80 per cent of the corruption is before the grain reaches the ration shops. There are several estimates about the extent of leakage and siphoning off of the grains, but the fact remains that PDS has failed to deliver.

Having faith in a rotten PDS system, as the Supreme Court appointed advisory panel has been asserting, is basically playing a prank with the poor and hungry. But somehow I find that the experts and activists who are part of the Supreme Court committee too are content with the system because it gives them enormous political clout. It is primarily for this reason that there is hardly much difference in the approach that the government is planning, and a section of the civil society is suggesting. What the NAC is doing is to chart out a new structure of grievance redressal without plugging the system loopholes.

But at the same time, there is a need for a distribution system. I am asking for a complete overhaul of the existing PDS. A mere tinkering will not do. Replace it with a more sharp and effective channel. At the same time, there is a need to limit the scope and reach of the distribution channel in the rural areas where a more people-oriented programme can be launched to ensure long-term food security. We will discuss this more later.

Group of Ministers have now directed Planning Commission to redefine the number of actual poor. Will it not help in ensuring food reaches those who need it most?

First and foremost, the time has come to draw a realistic poverty line. The Tendulkar Committee has suggested that 37 per cent of our population is living in poverty. Earlier, Arjun Sengupta Committee had said that 77 per cent of the population (or 836 million people) 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.

But the tragedy is that none of the numerous committees, economic surveys had not highlighted the urgent need to change the poverty line to a more meaningful figure if the issue of growing hunger has to be nipped in the bud. Surprisingly, deputy chairman of the Planning Commission, Montek Singh Ahluwalia is now saying that he finds the Tendular committee recommendation of 37 per cent as the BPL line “reasonable”.

Extent of hunger does not depend upon what policy makers think as ‘reasonable’. It has to be realistic.

It doesn't 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.

Once we have set these criteria, the approach for tackling absolute hunger and poverty would be different.

If India is to feed every poor, where is the money?

It is often argued that the government cannot foot the bill for feeding each and every Indian. This is far from 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 required to feed the nation for a year.

The proposed National Food Security bill actually reduced the family food intake that has to be supplied through the public distribution system (PDS) from 35 kg to 25 kg per family. To the BPL families, the 25 kg of foodgrains will be supplied at Rs. 3 per kg, which means in actual terms the government has very cleverly reduced the food subsidy.

If the government could provide Rs. 3.5 lakh crore as economic stimulus to the industry, and also provide for Rs. 5 lakh crore as revenue foregone in the 2010-11 fiscal, which are the sops and tax concessions to the industry and business, how can the government say it has no money to fight hunger?

From the projected allocation of Rs. 56,000 crore for 2010-11, the expenditure on food will come down to an estimated Rs. 25,428 crore. But now with the lastest NAC draft positioning for a coverage of 90 per cent of the rural population and 50 per cent of urban, fresh estimates point to the food bill going upto Rs 70,000-crore. In a country, which fares much worse than sub-Saharan Africa when it comes to hunger and malnutrition, isn’t it strange that the government is trying to cry wolf when it comes to fighting hunger.

The government somehow gives an impression that the country does not have the money to feed the hungry. Nothing can be further away from truth. If the government could provide Rs. 3.5 lakh crore as economic stimulus to the industry (actually the industry did not need it), and also provide for Rs. 6.5 lakh crore as revenue foregone in the 2011-12 fiscal, which are the sops and tax concessions to the industry and business, how can the government say it has no money.

The annual Budget exercise is of roughly Rs. 11 lakh crores. Which means, the government is subsidising industrialists almost 50 per cent of it by way of direct sops, in addition to what is provided in the Budget itself. The support by way of 'revenue foregone' is basically 'under the table' payment, since it lies 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.

What policy changes are required to ensure food security for all times to come?

But all this is not possible, unless some other policy changes are introduced to put the emphasis on long-term sustainable farming, and to stop land acquisitions and privatisation of natural resources. We need policies that ensure food for all for all times to come. This is what constitutes inclusive growth. A hungry population is a great economic loss resulting from the inability of the manpower to undertake economic activities. The debate on 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.

I suggest a 6-point programme to ensure Zero Hunger:

1. No agricultural land be diverted for non-agricultural purposes except where it is absolutely necessary like constructing railway lines, canals etc.

2. Revive agriculture on the lines of sustainability by restoring soil health and the natural resource base by bringing in low-external input sustainable farming practices.

3. Provide farmers with a fixed monthly income, incorporating the minimum support price. For the poorest of the poor household receiving micro-finance, ensure that the interest rate is reduced from the existing 18-48 per cent to a maximum of 4 per cent.

4. Disband PDS except for cash transfer for the Antyodya families. Replace this with Foodgrain Banks at the village level on the lines of the traditional gola system of food security in Bihar and east India.

5. Export of foodgrains be allowed only when the country’s total population is adequately fed.

6. International trade, including Free Trade Agreements, should not be allowed to play havoc with domestic agriculture and food security.

Isn’t it sad that people living in the villages which produce food should go to bed hungry?

Exactly, this is where we need a fundamental shift in our approach to addressing hunger. This will also reduce our dependence upon PDS, and thereby reduce the food subsidy bill. After all, India has more than 6 lakh villages. Why can’t we ensure that these villages become self-sustaining?

The proposed Food Security Act should consider setting up of community controlled small foodgrain banks at the village and taluka level. Any long-term food security plan cannot remain sustainable unless the poor and hungry become partners in the fight against hunger. There are ample examples of successful models of traditional grain banks (for instance, the famed gola system in Bihar), which need to be replicated through a nationwide programme involving self-help groups and NGOs.

Drawing up programme and projects that have long-term sustainability and become viable without government support in a couple of years, involving charitable institutions, religious bodies, SHGs and the non-profit organizations to ensure speedy implementation.

I am aware of at least a hundred villages in this country which haven’t witnessed hunger for over four decades now. They follow the traditional ‘sharing and caring’ system. I think this programme needs to be extended to all the villages of the country. Let the people in the villages take control over their food security.

Like in Brazil, the time has come when India needs to formulate a Zero Hunger programme. This should aim at a differential approach. I see no reason why people should go hungry in the villages, which produce enough food for the country year after year. These villages have to be made hunger-free by adopting a community-based localised food grain bank scheme.

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. 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.

Devinder Sharma is a food and agriculture policy analyst. His writings focus on the links between biotechnology, intellectual property rights, food trade and poverty. His blog is Ground Reality



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