The drought situation in India has gravely imperiled the lives and livelihood of crores of families in over fifty per cent districts across the country. The urgency of drought relief measures on an emergency basis arises from the reality that large numbers of Indian are already living on the edge, victims of malnutrition and hunger.

The International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI)’s Global Hunger Index (GHI) estimate ranks India at a low 66 out of the 88 developing countries, with a worse score than many Sub-Saharan African countries, with a GDP lower than that of India. The situation of malnutrition and food insecurity is further exacerbated by the utter failure of the Central Government to control the relentless price rise of essential commodities. The prices of rice, wheat, edible oil, salt have increased by 12 to 20 per cent and in the cases of some vegetables by over 100 per cent. The prices of commonly used dals (pulses) like Arhar have doubled and are sold at between 80 to 100 rupees a kilo . Sugar is today the most bitter commodity in the market at thirty rupees a kilo. High prices have led to increasing food insecurity because families are forced to cut down on their food intake. In particular, poor women and girl children are the worst affected.
Even as the Central Government is wrongly trying to blame the State Governments for this situation, it needs to answer:
Who has increased the prices of Petrol by Rs.4 per litre and Diesel by Rs. 2 per litre, leading to further price hikes? Who has cut down on the allocations of foodgrains in the rationing system uoto 73 per cent, weakening the public distribution system and thus creating more dependence on the market? Who permitted futures trade in many of the essential commodities allowing speculation and pushing up prices? Who permitted the export of sugar under pressure of the sugar lobbies leading to a shortage today?
All these major policy decisions that have a direct impact on increasing prices have been taken by the Central Government not State Governments. What is required is a change in these policies. The Centre must also reverse the policies that encourage hoarding and black-marketeering and the States must exercise a check on these.
In such a situation of price rise there is an urgent need for a food security law and the Government proposal to have such a law is welcome. However will the promised Food Security law of the present UPA Government fulfill its declared aim?
Government Proposal
Food security is defined by the Food and Agricultural Organisation as ‘Food security for a household means access by all members at all times to enough food for an active, healthy life.”
According to this definition a large majority of people in our country are food insecure. How does the Government proposal address this reality?
The proposed law will ensure 25 kg of foodgrains (rice and wheat) to all BPL families at Rs. 3 per kilo. The Central Government has sent a concept note to State Governments in line with this. The Congress President Sonia Gandhi has also sent a proposal on this issue to the Prime Minister along similar lines.
According to this proposal the legislation will be only for BPL card holders. The numbers will be decided by the Central Government every five years. States will have no rights to decide BPL numbers. The numbers of BPL at present is 6.52 crore families. The Central Government note proposes cutting this down further to 5.91 crore families as per the latest National Sample Survey round. On the other hand, surveys by a few State Governments add up to over 10 crores. If all the States were to do such surveys the numbers of those requiring food security would be much higher. The proposed law would thus mean a far higher level of exclusion of people.
Antodaya benefits will be eliminated and Antodaya card holders who at present are getting foodgrains at Rs. 2 per kg will have to pay one rupee more.
For both BPL and Antodaya card holders the quota will be cut by 10 kg per family from the present 35kg to 25 kg.
No foodgrain will be allocated for APL sections. Not only will the APL subsidy be eliminated but even the APL category will be cancelled.
The proposal instead of strengthening food security actually decreases what people are getting today and will thus lead to food insecurity. According to one estimate the net result of these proposals will be that the Central Government will end up saving more than Rs 4000 crores as food subsidy.
Not surprisingly, many State Governments have objected to the proposals.
There are other problems too with the proposals. While quotas are being cut, the number of ration cards will also be cut. Ration cards are given in many States either to nuclear families or even to individuals. Now it is proposed by the Congress President’s note that ration cards should be given to “joint family comprising all adults and children who eat from a common hearth and reside under a common roof.” Thus a larger number of people will have to share the reduced quota of 25 kg , if this is accepted as the norm.
The primary responsibility of providing food security is on the State Governments/Union Territory without a mandatory prior commitment by the Central Government to provide the necessary finances and foodgrains.
At least 10 state governments have successfully implemented more universal schemes. Those schemes will also be negatively affected by the Central Government proposals.
All these factors point towards the need for an inclusive universal PDS that includes several items at affordable prices linked to the capacity to pay of the majority of our people.
What is that capacity? The NSS data quoted by the Arjun Sengupta report says that 77 per cent of our population spends less than 20 rupees a day. At current prices that would mean one kilo of rice! Clearly with these low levels of expenditure the vast majority of our people require subsidized foodgrains and other essential commodities.
Dividing and Excluding the Poor: Targeting Continues!
It has been conclusively shown through evidence backed by NSS data that the targeting system started in 1996 has excluded large numbers of the poor. For example over half of agricultural labourers are excluded from the BPL category. Over half of dalit and tribal communities are also excluded.
The current average national poverty line according to the Planning Commission is only around 11.80 rupees per person per day for rural areas and 17.80 rupees per person per day for urban areas. These are clearly not poverty but destitution levels. And yet, anyone earning above these levels is considered ineligible for the subsidy. Under pressure from the Left and almost all political parties, a Committee was set up to relook at poverty estimates. Headed by Dr. S. Tendulkar the Committee is said to have recommended a methodology which would increase rural poverty from the current levels to around 42 per cent and the urban poverty estimates would go up to 26 per cent. It is not known whether the Government would accept these estimates
Even though this would mean a substantial increase and benefit a larger number of people, as far as food security is concerned it would still exclude a substantial number of families from a basic right. Considering that the vast mass of our people in both rural and urban India earn their living through the informal sector where there is no guaranteed income, the urgent requirement is for a universal system which would cover these sections. The central Government’sNational Commission for Enterprises in the Unorganized Sector has itself admitted that the vast number of unorganized sector workers require social security. How then can they be excluded from an even more basic right, that is food security?
It is therefore clear that the faulty Central Poverty estimates should be delinked from the guarantee to a right to food, which should be based on universal entitlements.
Antodaya Entitlements
The previous UPA government did little to expand the Antodaya scheme. In five years it increased the Antodaya beneficiaries on an average of just 10 lakhs a year (from 2 crores when it assumed power to 2.5 crores when its term was over). The CPI(M) had demanded an expansion of the Antodaya particularly to the “priority groups” identified by the Supreme Court like the aged, infirm, disabled, destitute; pregnant and lactating women, widows and other single women with no regular support; primitive tribal groups. In many tribal areas hunger and malnutrition has caused hunger deaths. The government also rejected a specific demand for expansion of the special Antodaya subsidies to tribals in remote areas. The present UPA government actually proposes to completely do away with the Antyodaya and subsume it under the BPL category asking them to pay higher prices.
Include All Food and Nutrition Schemes in the law
Nutrition programmes like the ICDS and the mid day meal scheme are hostage to budgetary considerations instead of being recognized as a statutory right. It is necessary to include all food and nutrition schemes of the Central Government in the proposed food security legislation so that the most vulnerable sections of our society, children of the poor, are guaranteed food security.
Production and Procurement
Food security requires food self-sufficiency. The agrarian crisis brought about by the neo-liberal policies of the Government has resulted in negligible agricultural growth and a fall in per capita availability and absorption of foodgrains in India after the mid-1990s.
Considering five-year averages India saw a rise in the foodgrain availability per head from 416 grams during 1950-55 to 485 grams by 1989-91. However since then there has been the slide to a low of 439.3 gram per head per day by 2007, a level not seen since the drought years of 1970s. There is a fall in per capita foodgrain production. If 5 year averages are taken between 1990 and 2008, it fell from about 200 grams in the 1990s to 187 grams during the NDA regime. During the UPA regime, it barely increased to 189 grams, well below the 1990s.
Therefore, the Government must take immediate short and medium term measures to increase production and procurement, instead of falling back on the inevitability of imports at levels that are bound to push up international prices and become a self-defeating exercise. Shockingly the Government imported wheat at prices higher than it was prepared to pay Indian farmers. Thus food self-sufficiency also requires a policy to ensure fair prices to farmers. The implementation of land reforms as in West Bengal is essential to engender food security. Other measures include increased public investment, extension services and appropriate land use policies.
MSP for Coarse Grains and procurement for PDS
The Government has not made any efforts to procure foodgrains at remunerative MSP for crops besides rice and wheat. The shortage pf pulses and oilseeds points to continued neglect by the Government. Moreover the Government has completely neglected the production of millets, or coarse grains like ragi, bajra, jowar which can be grown in dry areas. Production of millets has gone down by 2.4 per cent between 1996 and 2006. Shockingly although these grains form a staple food in diets of a large number of communities across the country, the Government has not included these in the public distribution system. This should be done as part of food security
In addition a number of essential commodities like dal, sugar and edible oils must be included in the PDS at subsidized prices
Reforming the PDS
The Fair Price Shops network and procurement system is in shambles in many parts of the country. Urgent steps are needed to make the procurement system more vibrant, cost-effective for States, remunerative for farmers and accountable to consumers.
The Decentralised Procurement Scheme is poorly conceived too so that most states are unable to increase local procurement. The States receive credit for procurement at an exorbitant interest rate of 12.35%, which must be halved. The Government of India has extremely unrealistic and irrational norms for storage, transportation and shrinkage losses, making State Governments bear an extra burden on account of the PDS which is a central scheme and penalising States which are part of the decentralised procurement system. These norms should be revised.
Accountability and expansion of the FPS network are essential, and the country has a lot to learn from Kerala in this regard. In Kerala, apart from the ration dealers SHGs, Panchayats and other co-operative societies or public bodies are also involved in public distribution. They get a working capital grant as well as better commission amounts. The delivery of the grain etc. is done to the doorstep of the FPS without any intermediaries. They are allowed to sell other commodities in order to increase their viability.  FPS should be allowed to sell other commodities as in Kerala in order to increase their viability. At the same time these shops provide a great service to consumers by selling commodities at much lower prices (see chart of prices in Kerala on inside back page)
Not ‘Feasible’ for Aam Aadmi ?
A strong food security system requires financial backing and adequate allocations. At present the food subsidy budgeted for 2009-10 of the Government is 52, 489 crore rupees, which is about 1.18 per cent of GDP. A June 2008 report of the International Monetary Fund showed that 28 countries have food subsidies. 16 countries increased their subsidies from near zero to up to 2.7 per cent of GDP as a response to higher food prices. Thus if India also raises its food subsidy to fund a food security system as suggested above it is not exceptional. The UPA Government’s continuous harping on inadequate finances to justify a targeted not a universal system is unconvincingIn budget 2009-2010 it gifted the corporate sector 4 lakh crore rupees in tax foregone. According to one estimate the giveaways to corporates in the last two years come to 700 crores rupees a day! Surely this is a policy not for aam aadmi but khaas aadmi.
Thus there can be no excuses for not ensuring the minimum human right of food security for our people.
A nationwide struggle is required to force a change of Government policy and to have a food security law which includes the basic issues discussed above.
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