One of the most important indicators of welfare is food security. Access to nutritional food is vital for the building of the human resource of any country. Unfortunately, the food security scenario in India is pitiable. Forget proteins, vitamins and minerals, large chunks of our population still struggle to have one square meal per day. Quite obviously, incidences of malnourishment, undernourishment, and even hunger are tied to the incidence of poverty. 70-75% of our population lives below the poverty line (if one looks at the measure of the calorific intake of people in the rural and urban areas- where the daily intake should be 2400 calories for the rural population and 2100 for the urban).
In view of the food crisis taking place, the National Advisory Council (NAC), under the chairmanship of Sonia Gandhi, proposed a National Food Security Bill (NFSB) on October 27, 2010. Below is a summary of the recommendations made by the NAC to the Prime Minister:
i. Legal entitlement to subsidized foodgrains to be extended to at least 75% of the
country’s population – 90% in rural areas and 50% in urban areas.
ii. The priority households (46% in rural areas and 28% in urban areas) to have a
monthly entitlement of 35 Kgs (equivalent to 7 Kgs per person) at a subsidized
price of Rs. 1 per Kg for millets, Rs. 2 per Kg for wheat and Rs. 3 per Kg for rice.
iii. The general households (39% rural and 12% urban in phase 1 and 44% rural and
22% urban in final phase) to have a monthly entitlement of 20 Kgs (equivalent to 4
Kgs per person) at a price not exceeding 50% of the current Minimum Support
Price for millets, wheat and rice.
iv. Legal entitlements for child and maternal nutrition, destitute and other vulnerablegroups.
v. Reform of the Public Distribution System (PDS).
These recommendations are however, dangerously close to the status quo of the government concerning food security. As of now, the government is following a policy of Targeted PDS (TPDS). Under TPDS, the country is divided in to 2 parts- Below Poverty Line households and Above Poverty Line (APL) households.
Under TPDS, the BPL households receive food grains at highly subsidized prices, while the APL households have to pay an amount linked to the Minimum Support Price (MSP), the farmer receives.
The best way of combating the present problem of food inflation and problems of inadequate food supply, is to widen and deepen the PDS, i.e., the government should revert to the policy of Universal PDS (UPDS). At this point it is important for us to take a step back, and take a brief peek in to the history of PDS in India.
The PDS made its debut in India in the 1960’s. This was the time when the country was suffering from a massive food crisis, owing to back-to-back monsoon failures. In response to this crisis we had the Green Revolution in the country. This basically involved the government playing a major role in providing high- yielding variety of seeds (HYVs), fertilizers, irrigation facilities etc. to the farmers across the country.
The Green Revolution helped India in attaining national food sufficiency, but it suffered from regional bias. While some states had abundant food supplies, other deficit states, along with growing urban regions, had to rely on supplies form the food-surplus regions. From the 4th Five Year Plan (1969-1974) onwards, the government institutionalised the policy of procuring food grains on the basis of a procurement price and distributing them to various parts of the country. The Universal PDS, which was introduced in 1965, acted as an important check against regional disparities in food grains consumption, owing to the uneven implementation of the Green Revolution. (R. Ramakumar, ‘Food Insecurities’, in Frontline, July 30, 2010).
In 1991, the government initiated the LPG reforms, owing to a massive fiscal crisis. A variety of tax concessions were offered to woo foreign investment and also domestic capital. Subsidies favouring the poor were reduced, citing the fiscal crisis, even as numerous tax concessions and hidden subsidies were offered to the well-to-do in the name of “incentives”. An illustration of this can be seen in the tax concession given to the corporate sector by the present UPA II government. It amounted to Rs. 5,02,299 crore in the year 2009-10, nearly 8% of the country’s GDP!
The year 1997 saw dismantling of the universal PDS, and its replacement with the Targeted PDS. The TPDS has systematically excluded a large number of people from the ambit of food security. The emphasis laid on by the policy makers on the costs of wrong financial inclusion (which is the rationale given for the division of households into BPL and APL households), often leads to ignoring the larger social costs of exclusion.
The attitude of the government in power with respect to food security, seems to be one of ignorance and insensitivity. The very fact that it seems unapologetic about the vast concessions given to the private sector, but seems overtly concerned about not extending more subsidies to the poor and hungry in the country, substantiates the above stated observation.
We need a complete overhaul of the food production and distribution system in the country. Universal access to food has to be made mandatory. The excuse of insufficient production is not acceptable, since we are all quite aware of millions of tonnes of food grains rotting away in the FCI warehouses! The UPA II needs to realize that tokenism in the name of food policy has to stop, before it finds itself being given the boot in the next general elections by the aam admi. Monty and Manmohan, are you listening.
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