Why not food security?
IT is strange and yet not so strange that the hullabaloo both preceding and following the presentation of the Union budget takes on the colours of a raucous festival, with all manners of economists and Page 3 columnists, as well as the articulate amongst the corporate honchos, debating and discussing endlessly to what degree the budget will give a fillip to the economy. Wise words are hotly exchanged as to the extent of planned tax cuts (both open and hidden) that will provide a ‘fillip’ to growth prospects – for the rich and the famous have to be given continuous sarkaari sops for their growth. Yet no one, in this budget festival, bothers to even acknowledge the presence (leave alone hear the voices) of the giant workforce, the main engine of our big growth story.
It is a sign of the times that whenever the issue of food security crops up, well-meaning commentators, economists and sundry self-appointed spokespersons go into contortions to establish why it cannot – and should not – be implemented. And most of them do not even bother to state whether it is an objective that needs to be focused on, if not eventually and urgently fulfilled.
On a philosophical scale, the right to food is indisputably a human right. Hunger, as defined by the Hunger Task Force in 2003, is ‘a condition in which people lack the basic food intake to provide them with the energy and nutrients for fully productive lives.’ The Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) in 2000 defined the absence of hunger as ‘access by all people at all times to enough nutritionally adequate and safe food for an active and healthy life.’ And as the NGO, Save the Children, has put it so succinctly, it is lack of affordability and not lack of availability that causes hunger.
If we accept these internationally recognized definitions as applicable to India as well, then we cannot escape positing them with our country picture. Astonishing though it may sound, since we claim to be riding a great growth story post-liberalization, the India HDR 2011 (quoting the National Family and Health Survey 2009) points out that in terms of undernourished children under five years, India’s figure at 48% was almost double of 26 sub-Saharan African countries which was only 25%. On a relative scale Kerala, Himachal Pradesh, Punjab, Sikkim, Manipur and Mizoram were shining beacons since the rest of India was at best either at par or well-below the average of sub-Sahara!
It would help if the opponents of food security mull over the specific findings of the above nutrition report:
* India is the worst performer in terms of low birth weight, underweight, and wasting among children in BRIC and SAARC countries.
* Nearly half of India’s children under three are malnourished.
* There are wide gaps between states and rural and urban areas with respect to cereal consumption.
* A very high percentage (21.5%) of babies in India are born with low birth weight.
* Child malnutrition is higher in rural than in urban areas.
* The prevalence of anaemia among adolescent girls is disturbingly higher than even among preschool children.
* Anaemia among children has increased over the years with rising rural-urban disparity.
It these findings do not impress our columnists, let us see what the international award-winning (and provincial detenu) good doctor Binayak Sen has to say in establishing that ‘our country is in a state of stable famine.’ He quotes the National Nutrition Monitoring Bureau’s conclusion that 37% of our adult population has a Bio Mass Index below 18.5. The World Health Organization (WHO) maintains that if more than 40% of a community has a BMI below 18.5%, then it is in a state of famine – and half our Scheduled Tribes and 60% of our Scheduled Castes’ BMI is, unfortunately, less than 18.5%.
What is worse is that food in general is becoming both unavailable as well as unaffordable for the large majority of our fellow citizens. Noted economist Utsa Patnaik talks of a steady decline in grain consumption in the last decade, with a five-member family’s annual intake going down from 880 kg to 770 kg. And the ‘Alternative Economic Survey India 2011’ says that ‘one rupee’s purchasing power in March 2011 was equal to 26 paise in 1990-91… the rupee almost lost three-fourths of its worth during this period’ of post-liberalization great growth in two decades.
This deadly combination of rising prices and the declining purchasing power of the rupee has reduced the daily per capita net availability of food grains from 465 grams during 1981-90 to 444 grams during 2001-2009. And so we have the dubious achievement of maintaining the status of a net exporter of food grains even though we do not have an exportable surplus. It is basically because millions of fellow Indians are not able to purchase food in adequate quantity due to poverty.
If the objective of food security cannot be denied on grounds of mass poverty, rising malnourishment and ever-rising prices, then the only way out is to see how it can be made operational, and not merely list out the roadblocks without suggesting how they can be cleared, as if they are insurmountable!
The present food subsidy on an annual basis is about Rs 70,000 crore, and according to the government’s own Cabinet decision, it would have been pushed up to Rs 95,000 crore, which means an additional spending of Rs 25,000 crore, in case food security were to be given a statutory basis. Now it is impossible to believe that budgetary support of an additional Rs 25,000 crore is beyond the government’s means. To give a crude example, if we buy 25 Rafael jet fighters, as we have boasted we will, it means a spending of about Rs 25,000 crore – which in the case of food security has raised the hackles of so many Page 3 columnists, but in the case of ‘defence preparedness’ has passed the intellectual muster without even a whimper.
Now it might well be an outrageous thought that such expensive war toys may eventually never be used, keeping in view the new international scenario, where full-scale wars between nations seem to have become a historical past. But it is certainly not outrageous to ask why we are willing to put urgent issues of hunger, poverty and malnourishment so easily on the back-burner, and yet not question the rationale of a 17% rise in the defence budget, pushing it to almost two lakh crore rupees – and this does not even include expenditure on six paramilitary organizations (CRPF, BSF, ITBP, SSB, Assam Rifles, Ladakh Scouts) that totals up to the world’s fifth-largest land army.
I am not really advocating demilitarization of the subcontinent (separately though, it can well be argued that such a move would unlock huge capital in the ASEAN region). But I am arguing that there is no shortage of money for the comparatively little required to help the poor’s food security – when there seems to be neither any shortage of money nor any dissent in the purchase of expensive war toys.
Having thus seen how necessary it is to provide food security for the poor, and how there is virtually no shortage of money, let us adopt a cynical argument – which is to say that it is the only way out of the MSP/PDS regimen, and how for the present there is no fundamental alternative to the MSP/PDS system.
The green revolution of the sixties which helped multiply food output more than five times to its present annual level of 250-300 million tones, is based on the Minimum Support Prices (MSP) to be offered to farmers with a marketable surplus, so that agricultural prices do not crash. Coupled with this was the Public Distribution System (PDS), meant to assure food grains supply to the needy, at a reasonable rate.
It would be fair to assume that an extension of the MSP to marketable surplus of food grains output will not be done away with in the foreseeable future. No democratically elected government in India would risk a crash of agri-market prices, and thereby alienate the farmers with a marketable surplus, who today control the rural political economy, the rural electoral vote-banks, and rural political opinion. It would be equally fair to assume that no one would similarly be willing to do away with the PDS, howsoever imperfect it might be, for no political party in a democratic set-up would be willing to alienate the poor.
Since food security would require an annual supply of around 60-65 million tonnes, many argue that such a huge figure would be a logistical nightmare for the FCI to handle. But this is an erroneous viewpoint because if the Food Corporation of India (FCI) can handle 55 million tonnes of annual procurement (average for the last three years), with its vast network of more than 1500 godowns spread across the length and breadth of the country, surely an addition of 5-10 million tonnes should be possible to manage.
Moreover, forcing the FCI to release its biodegradable stocks will ease the liquidity crunch in the market. In fact, since the FCI is forced to pick up most of the marketable surplus of wheat and common rice, it only makes sense to make it available for human consumption, before such locking up further raises market prices.
There is also apprehension that we would be walking into a disaster if food security were to have a statutory mandate because there is no guarantee that the FCI will indeed procure 55 million tonnes every year. On the other hand, were that be so in an occasional year, we could well anticipate and go in for some judicious food imports – after all, China and Egypt and Japan do it year after year. In any case, why should we import only war toys (India is now the biggest arms importer in the world) amidst allegations of big pay-offs ? Why not also go in for food imports for the poor whenever the need may arise?
There is no denying that the food security bill is not a complete or ultimate solution. On the other hand, in a situation of widespread poverty, malnourishment and rising prices, it is a necessary beginning. And it will also be good for the economy and its growth prospects. It will help push up the purchasing power of the poor, which will obviously lead to a better market for the manufactured goods sector, which can only be good news for liberal economics!
But what is surprising is that the latest General Budget 2012 presented to Parliament has put the issue of food security on the back burner! Has poverty and malnourishment been abolished till a pre-2014 election call revives it?