The problem

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FOLLOWING the relative success in instituting a right to employment and a right to education in its first term in office, few had anticipated the ensuing flurry of criticism when the UPA government introduced the National Food Security Bill in Parliament in line with its manifesto promise. After all, the widespread presence of hunger and malnutrition is widely recognized, with the prime minister calling it ‘a matter a national shame’. The UNICEF website points out that over 20 per cent of our population, close to 240 million, suffer from chronic hunger. Worse, close to half the children under three years of age are underweight and too small for their age, and at least 16 per cent of them are wasted. That this should obtain in the country, despite relatively robust economic growth over the last two decades and close to three per cent growth in agriculture (including foodgrain output), makes this, arguably, the single greatest failure of the Indian Republic.

The criticism from those worried about the tendency to add to the list of justiciable entitlements, particularly after the massive expenditures incurred in the aam admi programmes so favoured by the government thereby substantially enhancing both the administrative and fiscal burdens on what they call ‘an already overburdened state’, is not unexpected. They see such ‘populist moves’ as diverting scarce resources from the more important tasks of wealth creation and agricultural modernization. Moreover, these critics point to the massive corruption and leakages marking the public distribution system as also in the many schemes like the mid-day meal scheme in public schools, the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS), and so on. Thus, instead of attempting to enhance procurement and distribution of subsidized foodgrains to those classified as poor, and in need, through a faulty system at high cost, they would rather limit themselves to the special category of those in need – children, pregnant and lactating mothers, the old and disabled – individuals/families unable to acquire the needed supply of nutritious food on their own. Further, they advocate a cash transfer scheme to those identified as poor, thereby enabling them to purchase their foodgrains from the normal retail outlets. This, they feel, would substantially reduce corruption.

Less expected was the criticism from those sections of civil society who have long campaigned for enhanced entitlements through a strengthened food security apparatus. While welcoming the intention behind the National Food Security Bill, they are critical both of its architecture and the rules/procedures governing provisioning. On top of their list is the decision to continue with a ‘flawed’ reasoning behind, and the method of, dividing the poor into below and above poverty line groups – each entitled to different quantities of subsidized foodgrains. This process, they argue, leads to significant errors of exclusion. Instead, they propose a system of universal provisioning, only excluding those classified as rich. The move towards a self-targeting system, as for instance in the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, would ensure that only those in need would access subsidized foodgrains, i.e., the exercise would inherently be self-limiting.

Equally of concern is the move to replace the existing system of public distribution of foodgrains operating through fair price shops by a system of cash vouchers. This, it is argued, would only helps the state shirk its constitutional responsibilities towards the citizens; equally, it may well result in the cash subsidies being used for purchase of non-essentials. While admitting to the continuing problem of corruption and leakages, they point to the need to reform and strengthen the public distribution system, as for instance has happened in a few states, rather than rely on a flawed and inequitous market mechanism or substantially eroded systems of community support.

Finally, there is concern over setting uniform standards across the entire country. Many states, as for instance Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Chhattisgarh, cover a much larger proportion of population and entitle them to access higher amounts of subsidized foodgrains at lower prices than what is proposed in the current version of the food security bill. Limiting subsidies to be provided by the central government at the levels proposed in the National Food Security Bill, thereby placing the burden of any additional coverage/entitlements on the state government, would not only reduce the entitlements of the poor, but also impinge on the federal spirit of the Constitution.

While much of the debate so far has been on the distribution end – on the computation of the poverty line, the categorization of the poor into the APL and BPL categories, the quantum of entitlements – and the fiscal and administrative implications of the bill, most analysts point out that genuine food security involves not just access, but also enhancing availability and utilization. Without a major additional infusion of resources in agriculture – improving farm productivity and farmer incomes, institutional reforms, technological and financial support to small farmers, reduction in post-harvest losses, and so on – we will not be able to reduce the numbers of those in need. Equally important is the need to focus on nutritional security which is affected not only by availability and economic access to food, but also by complementary conditions for nutritional absorption, including access to safe drinking water, sanitation facilities, healthcare and education, particularly care of mothers and children. It is worth nothing that despite increased food production, malnutrition remains a serious problem. Unfortunately, the NFSB remains silent on all issues concerning the long-term health and viability of our agriculture and rural life.

To state sharply, critics on either side of the spectrum have pointed to significant shortcomings in the proposed legislation, some even calling it a revised public distribution system bill rather than a National Food Security Bill.

This issue of Seminar seeks to debate the many issues and concerns thrown up by the proposed legislation in the hope that it will contribute to a more reasoned debate than what we have so far witnessed. Rushing through a flawed legislation, in the expectation of ‘political rewards’, can be as dangerous as abandoning the enterprise, merely because of our political inability to imagine a better legislation and construct a national consensus.