Need for new thinking
AFTER a prolonged debate in the country, the National Food Security Bill has finally been introduced in Parliament. Ironically, controversies about the bill have only increased after this important move. Not only has it been criticized by many states for violating the spirit of the federal structure of the Indian Constitution, but also by civil society groups for being, at best, a half-hearted attempt at dealing with the problem of hunger in the country. It has also been adversely commented upon by members of the NAC (National Advisory Council), which has reportedly, at least in parts, authored the bill. It is, therefore, worthwhile to look at the bill and consider whether it will help achieve the objective of providing food security to the people of India.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has called the problem of malnutrition ‘a matter of national shame’, admitting that, ‘despite impressive growth in our GDP, the level of undernutrition in the country is unacceptably high.’ The Unicef website points out that, ‘Malnutrition is more common in India than in Sub-Saharan Africa. One in every three malnourished children in the world live in India. In India, around 46 per cent of all children below the age of three are too small for their age, 47 per cent are underweight and at least 16 per cent are wasted. Many of these children are severely malnourished.’ The need for a food security law is therefore obvious.
In the Statement of Objectives and Reasons (SOR) of the bill, food security has been defined as ‘availability of sufficient food grains to meet the domestic demand as well as access, at the individual level, to adequate quantities of food at affordable prices.’ The SOR then goes on to state that, ‘Attainment of self-sufficiency in food grains production at the national level has been one of the major achievements of the country.’ The bill, therefore, only seeks to address food security at the individual level. In the Food Security Bill this is sought to be done by creating entitlements. However, food entitlements proposed in this bill are not only arbitrary but also minimalistic, and are unlikely to provide any real food security.
A simple reading of the bill shows that it actually creates no new entitlement. It has only enumerated and compiled existing entitlements under various government schemes. In many cases it even reduces the entitlements that currently exist in many states. The SOR of the bill lists as many as 20 objectives, which are not only confusing but at times even contradictory. A high sounding intent of providing ‘for food and nutritional security, in human life cycle approach, by ensuring access to adequate quantity of quality food at affordable prices, to people to live a life with dignity’ is declared in sub-paragraph (a). Subsequent paragraphs, however, limit the obligations of the government to such an extent that this objective becomes illusory.
Let us look at what the bill does in its 15 chapters, 52 sections and three schedules.
1. It lists existing welfare schemes like ICDS, TPDS etc. at one place.
2. It creates a plethora of new institutions of doubtful effectiveness but provides huge scope for ‘jobs for the boys’.
3. It creates a complex grievance redress machinery with complicated mechanisms and appeal systems that is unlikely to be effective.
4. It limits the obligation of the government to provide subsidized food grains fixed at only seven kg/person/month to priority households and three kg/person/month to general category households.
5. It limits the obligation of the government to provide subsidized food grains to 75% of rural and 50% of urban population without ensuring accountability for non-delivery on its promises.
6. It makes a commitment of ‘leveraging Aadhar for unique identification, with biometric information of entitled beneficiaries for proper targeting of benefits’, even though the usefulness and effectiveness of Aadhar is yet unproven.
7. In many states it actually reduces coverage of beneficiaries under TPDS from existing levels.
8. The bill makes a commitment to introduce schemes like cash transfers, food coupons, etc. in lieu of food grain entitlements, without any conclusive evidence that these schemes will result in reduction of leakages or diversion. As a matter of fact, there have been several scams relating to forged food coupons in ‘food for work’ schemes in many states. Similarly, leakages in cash transfer schemes like scholarships, pension, etc. are not uncommon.
Food security cannot be achieved merely by creating minimalistic statutory food entitlements. Any meaningful policy on food security must include the following:
Support for production, storage and procurement of food grains: Food security of a country requires support for all the steps from production of food grains to their procurement, storage and distribution. Procurement at minimum support price is necessary to provide incentive to farmers to produce food grains. While there are many other factors that influence production, price support and procurement are the most important ingredients of any policy on food security. Unless the farmer is assured of a market for his produce, he is unlikely to take the risks associated with cultivation of food grains and may even shift to non-food crops.
Procurement of food grains by the government is necessary for another reason as well. There are many regions in the country where food grain production is high. These are food surplus regions. However, many regions do not produce enough to take care of their requirements. It is thus necessary to procure food grains in food surplus regions and ensure supply to food deficit areas. Further, there is a need to maintain adequate buffer stocks for low production years. Food grains production in India is dependent on many factors, including good monsoons. A bad production year can result in major shortages of food in the country. Any food security policy thus, must necessarily include a policy on procurement and storage.
The policy should also clearly lay down what should be done with the food grains which are procured by government. There are only a few options available. One way is to distribute grains through the pubic distribution system, with or without subsidy. The other is to use them for welfare schemes like the mid-day meal scheme, ICDS, or food for work programmes. A third alternative could be to simply sell the food grains procured by the government in the open market. However, this may result in major price distortions and little benefit in terms of actual availability of food grains to poor households. The best option may thus be to distribute food grains to the poor and needy through an improved and functional public distribution system. Any legislation on food security must, therefore, include provisions for procurement and storage of food grains and provisions for improving the public distribution system.
Self targeting approach: The present bill does not specify any criteria for identification of target beneficiaries, leaving it to the government to decide them at a later date. The reason why this has not been done in the bill is obvious. Identification of the poor and making of BPL lists is fraught with grave dangers. Incorrect identification is a serious possibility. While inclusion errors only lead to some diversion of subsidy, exclusion errors can have serious consequences and even lead to starvation in extreme situations. We have seen this happen in the past. Devising suitable criteria to limit the coverage to a certain percentage of the population is difficult, if not impossible. Those responsible for drafting the bill have conveniently left this most important task to be done by the government at a future date.
Instead of following artificial criteria for identification of below poverty line families, the scheme should be made self-targeting to eliminate the need for identification. A case in point is the MGNREGA scheme, where anyone seeking work is given a guarantee of 100 days of work. The understanding is that the kind of hard labour which is required in MGNREGA will only be sought by those who are really in need of work. Similar safeguards can be built into the public distribution system. At best the scheme can have some exclusion criteria, for example being an income tax payee or owning a car, etc.
The guarantee of freedom from hunger and malnutrition: This bill limits the obligation of the state to provide seven kg food grains/person/month to priority households and three kg food grains/person/month to general households. It further limits the obligation of the state to 75% coverage in rural areas and 50% coverage in urban areas. There is no guarantee that these entitlements will put an end to hunger and malnutrition. Without such assurances the bill can hardly be called a food security bill. The comments of the Government of Chhattisgarh on the bill are worth noting, where they have said that the legislation should be titled the national food assistance bill because that is all that it strives to do.
Sanctions against the state: The bill has provided for a fine of Rs 5000 on public servants who fail to provide relief recommended by the District Grievance Redressal Officer without reasonable cause, or for willfully ignoring such recommendation. However, no sanctions have been provided against the state for not doing its duty. For example, the bill does not make the government liable for sanctions, if the criteria for identification of beneficiaries made by it results in exclusion of the really poor and needy. Similarly, the bill does not make the government liable for delays in release of quotas of food grains.
The multifactorial nature of hunger and malnutrition: The bill has oversimplified the problem of malnutrition and food security to be merely a matter of distribution of food grains. It fails to realize that malnutrition and food insecurity arise from a complex web of socio-cultural factors like poverty, lack of livelihood options, unsafe drinking water, poor sanitation, constant ill health, high fertility and so on. The bill only makes a general statement in section 39 that the central and state governments and local authorities shall for the purpose of advancing food and nutritional security, strive to progressively realize the objectives specified in schedule III.
Let us now consider what is required to ensure food security in India. Obviously food security at the macro level will come from production of food grains within the country in amounts necessary to feed the entire population. To a lesser extent it will also come from better storage facilities so that food grains are not lost to rodents, pests, rain damage, etc. Food grains production in India is, however, not increasing at the pace it should for the country to remain self-sufficient in food for a growing population. Strategies for increasing food production should, therefore, form an important part of any food security initiative.
Since our discussion here is limited to the food security bill tabled in Parliament, there is little scope to discuss these strategies. However, it needs to be stated that an assured market for food grain crops, meaning procurement by public agencies under the price support scheme of the government, is necessary to encourage farmers to increase production. Once procured, the government must ensure effective distribution of food grains through the public distribution system. This is also an argument against cash transfers of subsidy because the government may then be left with large stocks of food grains which it cannot use. This, of course, does not imply that we should continue with a corrupt, inefficient and non-responsive public distribution system. PDS must be reformed to ensure that intended benefits reach the poor. That this can be achieved is clear from the success stories from Chhattisgarh and Tamil Nadu, among others.
Food security at the family level certainly requires availability of food at affordable prices. However, it also implies that there should be enough purchasing power in the hands of the poor and needy to buy food. Factors like livelihoods, availability of safe drinking water, sanitation, general health care system, family size, ability to make informed choices about health and nutrition and availability of food, etc. all contribute to food security at the family level. Creating a small entitlement of food grains not adequate to take care of the food and nutrition needs of the entire family, is most definitely not going to make these households food secure. If the government is sincere in its claims that it wants to ensure food security at household level, it should improve governance at the grassroots level so that every household is able to earn a livelihood, have access to safe water, sanitation and health services, in addition to having access to food grains at affordable prices.
If we can improve governance and provide households the opportunity to earn a livelihood with dignity, there will be little need for subsidy. Unfortunately, we are well aware that this utopian objective is unlikely to be achieved in the near future. It is no secret that there are a large number of people living in abject poverty and chronic hunger. The government must, therefore, find ways of ensuring that everybody at least gets enough food to fight hunger. Whether this can be achieved through legislation is however a moot question.
The argument that government does not have enough resources has often been advanced in debates on foods security legislation. The issue, therefore, is whether entitlements should be created according to the perceived resources of the government or to prevent hunger and ensure food security. If the purpose of the legislation is to ensure food security then the choice is obvious. Albert Einstein had once remarked that problems cannot be solved by the same level of thinking which created them. If the solutions to the food security riddle are limited by the perceived resources of the government, we may as well give up. The objective should be to find innovative ways of generating new resources and distributing available resources in such a way that those most in need get adequate quantity of food to fight hunger.
This brings us to the crucial question: What should be included in a legislation on food security? This is a situation where more words can actually mean less. The proposed law should limit itself to creating a statutory right of freedom from hunger and malnutrition with dignity. There can be no debate that this right should be universal and available to every citizen without any discrimination and artificial barriers like APL or BPL. The government cannot seek refuge behind a shortage of resources or problems of identification, for its inability to ensure this right to all its citizens. Passing a law without creating such entitlements will only be a farce. It is understandable that systemic improvement is unlikely to happen overnight. We may think of a bill which provides for an incremental improvement over a period of time. It is better to aim at gradual improvement rather than compromise on entitlement and the fight against hunger. The bill may have a time table for elimination of malnutrition and hunger. The bill should also provide a mechanism to monitor that the time table is adhered to based on measurable indicators. It should provide for sanctions against the government if the time table for elimination of malnutrition and hunger is not adhered to.