India has a poor record when it comes to nutrition and health. The Ministry of Health Report 2011, reveals that 43 % of children, below the age of 5, are underweight, 48% are stunted and 20% have severe and acute malnutrition. Tragically, 1.3 million children under the age of 5 die every year because of malnutrition and lack of access to health care. The State has put in place many welfare schemes that cater to specific target groups like the Mid-Day Meal Scheme (MDMS), Antyodaya Anna Yojana (AAY), Integrated Child Development Scheme (ICDS) and Public Distribution System (PDS).
The Congress led union government is claiming that National Food Security Bill 2011 introduced in the Lok Sabha will ensure freedom from hunger, malnutrition and other deprivations. The Bill seeks to promote Right to Food (RTF) and is in line with some of the obligations under the Constitution and various international conventions. This is highlighted in the Bill and the preamble clearly mentions: “…the Supreme Court of India has recognised the right to food and nutrition as integral to the right to life…”.
Flagging off a few contested issues:
The distribution of entitlements that the Bill seeks to provide will be mainly through PDS. However, only if the PDS is of a universal nature the goal of the Bill can be achieved. Yet, the Bill does not seek to provide for this. It lays down some rigid targets. The beneficiaries are classified into three groups namely, priority, general and excluded. This was suggested even after various studies have shown that the Government has failed in their attempts to classify people in the past.
The population that is covered under the ‘Target Public Distribution System is, according to, Rajya Sabha MP, Brinda Karat (CPI-M), around 18 crore and it comprises of 90% of the population based on projections used by the central
Government’- (quoted in The Hindu) . But entitlements under the Bill are expected to only cover 75% of the rural and 50% of the urban population. This means a cut down on the number of eligible household. The central Government recognises 6.54 cr. people as poor. The state Government estimations of Below Poverty Line (BPL) families are 11.03 cr. comprising of 56% of the population. But the Bill puts a cap on the BPL household at 46% (rural) and 28% (urban).
The Bill cuts down the entitlements from 35 kgs. per household (under PDS) to 7 kgs per person for a ‘priority’ family. The individual system may look reasonable but it impacts poor households with fewer children. For ‘general’ families the entitlement under the bill is only 3kgs. per person. Can this be called food security?
The Bill covers food items like rice, wheat and coarse grains. But these alone do not provide adequate nutrition to people. State Governments, such as Tamil Nadu, also provide dals, spices, oil and other commodities under PDS system and this does help in addressing the deficiencies of the Indian cereal-dominated diet.
Ten state governments have a well-established system where BPL families get rice at Rs. 2 a kg. For e.g. in Tamil Nadu it is provided at Re. 1 and to some sections completely free. The national Bill ignores these benefits. The central Government has the right to change the prices any time. The above poverty line (APL) cardholders have to pay 50% of the minimum support price (MSP) given to the farmers. The prices of the APL cardholders would rise upwards with a raise in the MSP. Thus the Bill creates a conflict between the farmer and the consumer.
Take a look at this:
But where will the funds come from?
As per the Bill, the entire payment for all these free schemes proposed by the Central government will have to be made by the State government. Since the largest number of poor people reside in precisely those States where there are very limited resources, expecting the State governments to bear the huge expenditures is unjust and unfair.’ (Brinda Karat, Ibid.)
As per the 2009-10 budget documents, the central Government budgeted Rs. 8,000 crore for the Mid-Day Meal Scheme; Rs. 6,026 crore for ICDS; Rs. 6,523 crores for “Social Security and Welfare” (includes expenditure on pension schemes); and Rs. 43,627 crore for food subsidy. This brings the “food bill” to Rs. 64,176 crore. The projected subsidy under this Bill with a 100% off take shows about 92,000 cr. The procurement and storage capacity of the government is little above 42.5 million tonnes. However under the Bill the procurement would rise up to 73.98 million tonnes. This means a significant scaling up of the procurement, warehousing and supply chain operations. Given the absence of such basic facilities and potentially huge rise in the financial bill we need to discuss the feasibility of such a Bill.
Is the Bill is feasible?
No, my contention is that it is not as it stands now. It merely seems like it is PDS with fewer benefits. The Bill hardly speaks of nutrition. It speaks more of quantitative allocation of food grains. The country could do without the Bill and still meet its constitutional obligations. The alternative is to increase the budgetary allocations of the existing polices and plug the leakages. Also, make them legally enforceable.
Hence, I would go along with the suggestion made by Reetika Khera: “One cheaper alternative would be to make an initial provision for universal PDS in the poorest 200 districts of the country. This would give a chance to observe the comparative performance of the universal and targeted systems before gradual universalization elsewhere.”
There is evidence to support the argument. According to a PDS survey in 2011 states such as Tamil Nadu, Himachal Pradesh has universal PDS. In these states the APL households pay higher price than BPL households, though their entitlements are the same. (The survey covered over 1200 households entitled to PDS commodities. The nine states covered by the survey are Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Himachal Pradesh, Orissa, Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu and Uttar Pradesh.)
I would like to conclude with what P. Sainath says, “The truth is the government seeks ways to spend less and less on the very food security it talks about. Hunger is defined not by how many people suffer it, but by how many the government is willing to pay for. Hence the endless search for a lower BPL figure.” The Government’s intention can be questioned as it seeks to spend Rs.10,000 crore for a new airport, Rs. 40,000 cr. for Commonwealth games, Rs. 60,000 cr. lost in the spectrum scam and many others. Hence he suggests universalizing rather than get stuck in experimentation.
By Ashwin Parthasarathy
“Food Security Bill needs amendments” http://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/food-security-bill-needs-amendments/article2285546.ece (last accessed on February 6, 2013)
Khera, Reetika, “One step forward, one step back?”, http://www.india-seminar.com/2012/634/634_reetika_khera.htm (last accessed on February 6, 2013)
Khera, Reetika, “Right to Food Act: Beyond Cheap Promises”, Economic and Political Weekly, July 18, 2009, pp. 40-44
Report of the Expert Committee on National Food security Bill: http://www.prsindia.org/uploads/media/Food%20Security/Report%20of%20the%20Expert%20Committee%20on%20National%20Food%20Security%20Bill.pdf
Sainath, P., “Food security — of APL, BPL & IPL”, The Hindu, July 6, 2010, http://www.thehindu.com/opinion/columns/sainath/food-security-of-apl-bpl-ipl/article501693.ece (last accessed on February 4, 2013)
The Revival of the PDS the National Food Security Bill and the Question of Cash Transfers: