Originally Published 2012-02-03 00:00:00 Published on Feb 03, 2012
The proposed Food Security Act will cost the government around Rs 100,000 crore a year. Though it is big money, especially when the economy is on downslide, when lots of money were spent on events like the Commonwealth Games and industry given huge tax sops.
Law on food security: Time to focus on farm productivity
The Food Security Bill, which was approved by the Cabinet on December 18, 2011, will be placed before Parliament in due course. The pros and cons of the Bill have been discussed widely in public debates and diverse views have emerged. In a country like India where recent reports about malnourishment and stunted growth among children are not only alarming but also shameful and require urgent public attention, reaching food to the poor is the duty of the government. In fact, the Public Distribution System (PDS) has done so for 60 years, but obviously it has not done it efficiently and gaps remain.

Many people want wider coverage and have argued that the Food Security Bill should be universal in its approach and that there should be no differentiation between the very poor - people below poverty line (identified as the 'priority group') - and the not-so-poor (above poverty line or the 'general group'). Only 46 per cent of the rural population and 28 per cent of the urban population would fall under the 'priority group'. The Bill provides for highly subsidised foodgrains for the 'priority group' and each BPL person would get 7 kg of foodgrains per month - rice at Rs 3 per kg, wheat at Rs 2 per kg and coarse grains at Rs 1 per kg. But different conditions apply for the 'general group' - they would get 3 kg per person of cereals at half the minimum support price that is given to farmers.

The Bill is supposed to cover 75 per cent of the rural population and 50 per cent of the urban population. All in all, it is slated to allocate a much smaller amount of foodgrains than in the prevailing PDS. Every poor family will have to purchase additional amounts in the open market. It won't change the nutritional intake of children perhaps because only foodgrains are going to be distributed.

Of course, for a country as big as India and with around 456 million poor (World Bank), and 240 million hungry and malnourished people, at least 75 per cent of the population will get subsidised food but it will cost a huge amount of money about which recently Sharad Pawar expressed concern. The Food Security Bill, if it becomes an Act, will cost the government around Rs 100,000 crore a year and this too when the economy is on a downswing and the growth rate is sliding from 9 per cent to 7 per cent. It will mean a much bigger than expected fiscal deficit which will cause many problems and enlarge manifold the government's borrowing programme which may be inflationary and may crowd out private investment. But when there is no shortage of money for events like the Commonwealth Games and huge tax sops are given for the industrial sector every year, why shouldn't the government provide the resources for feeding the poor? Also if the level of corruption can be brought down, what is sought for the poor can easily be done.

The opponents argue that the Food Security Bill does not address the real problem of poverty alleviation, especially in the countryside. Though provision has been made for improving agricultural productivity and creating additional storage space, it is being done too late. The real problems in agriculture are small-sized farms and low quality of inputs, including inadequate irrigation facilities. These problems have made marginal farmers dependent on subsidised food because their own productivity is low. To raise farm incomes, there is need for greater public investment in irrigation and storage. The lack of sufficient employment opportunities in the non-farm sector is also responsible for poverty in the villages.

Critics of the new Food Security Bill also say that if the government is serious about alleviating poverty and feeding the poor, it shouldn't let tonnes of foodgrains lie rotting in the open. So much wastage is unthinkable in a country where hunger and starvation deaths are reported from many parts.

Opponents also point out that the Bill has been passed by the Cabinet with a political dividend in mind. It is aimed at convincing the poor that the government is serious about ameliorating their lot as they have faced high food inflation in the past two years. It could have much political leverage in the future but the fact remains that when there are hungry people in the country, the government cannot ignore them and it has to do something urgent about correcting the situation.

The Food Security Bill thus is a move in the right direction except that it has to have a much better delivery system. Various checks and balances have to be in place to monitor trucks carrying foodgrains to remote villages because most of the diversion of foodgrains to the market takes place before it reaches the ration shops. Also there has to be regular monitoring of the effectiveness of some of the important food-based interventions like the Integrated Child Development Services, the Mid-Day Meal Scheme and maternal care schemes that have been included in the Bill. Other indicators which directly or indirectly affect food security are access to safe drinking water and toilets which have also been included.

Large-scale procurements by the government, however, may mean that the private sector procurement will get squeezed and this may lead to price rise. What may also happen is that there will be a hike in the minimum support prices of wheat and rice every year which will push up inflation. The Bill involves a top-down approach with little leeway for states to manage their own food security needs. It is, therefore, imperative that the government revamps the food security system on all fronts and involves the states. Additional items like pulses and oilseeds/edible oils should also be regularly supplied if the malnutrition question is to be addressed seriously.

To reduce malnutrition, the ministries concerned have asked for a huge hike in expenditure, but how can proper implementation of the programmes be ensured?

Revamping agriculture is obviously important; otherwise if agriculture remains dependent on the monsoon and the same pattern of cultivation continues, there may be a shortfall in the procurement requirement of 61 million tonnes of foodgrains a year. It will make India dependent on imports in times of droughts and vulnerable to world price fluctuations. We cannot take the risk of feeding almost 1.3 billion people through imports by saying, "We have enough foreign exchange reserves." Food self-sufficiency through increasing agricultural productivity is important, and in future if there is faster agricultural growth through more R&D, better storage and improved rural roads, India could be an important exporter of foodgrains also.

(Dr. Jayshree Sengupta is a Senior Fellow at Observer Research Foundation)

Courtesy: The Tribune

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David Rusnok

David Rusnok

David Rusnok Researcher Strengthening National Climate Policy Implementation (SNAPFI) project DIW Germany

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