Food Security Bill – Yet Another Bluff?

National Food Security Bill 2012 to be tabled in Indian Parliament would be a big global Inspiration according to researchers from Institute of Development Studies, UK.

“India stands at the threshold of potentially the largest step towards food justice the world has ever seen, as the National Food Security Bill works its way through parliament,” Lawrence Haddad, director of the Britain-based IDS, said.  The bill aims to give legal right to cheaper food grain to 63.5 per cent of the population. Around 180 million households — 65 million below poverty line (BPL) and 115 million above poverty line (APL) category families — get subsidized rations under the public distribution system through the fair price shops.

Despite decades of tom-toming food surplus and great economic growth, India has shamefully remained a Republic of Hunger, Al Jajeera says and rightly so because in the report by the Expert Committee on India’s National Food Security Bill we see this admitted candidly.

India’s high economic growth rate in the past decade has not been fully reflected in the health status of its people, with 22 per cent of its population undernourished. According to the National Family Health Survey 2005-06, 40.4 per cent of children under the age of three are underweight, 33 per cent of women in the age group of 15-49 have a body mass index below normal and 78.9 per cent of children in the age group of 6-35 months are anaemic. These are disturbing statistics which point to nutritional deficiencies. The NAC proposal for a National Food Security Bill is perhaps the most important national effort yet to address these deficiencies in India.

The appalling malnutrition statistic is according to Global Hunger Index – IFPRI.

India’s demographic dividend from a nation of more than half the population within productive age will mean nothing if 1 in 2 of its children are stunted on account of maturation (surviving  the cruel reality that India is still a country among those of the highest infant mortality rates). This is the least understood aspect of Indian Hunger malady. India loses the global attention and sympathy because it’s not a ‘famine’ country like some unfortunate African states but is in the grip of a silent monstrosity where it produces deficient, weak and underdeveloped population that does not score well in human resource quality scale. The most vulnerable but neglected segment is the first 1,000 days in a child’s life — the period from conception to age two, when much of the brain development takes place. Food needs to reach the baby and mother at right place and time providing right nutrition and all these ‘rights’ are very doubtful in Indian context.

India’s National Food Security Bill creates much interest, debate and media attention in national and international arena. Lawrence Haddad is one such example. “Although the bill alone won’t fix India’s food system, the world will be watching to see if it can provide a template for other countries to follow,” Haddad said ahead of the launch of a bulletin by IDS and voluntary organization Oxfam International.

There are skeptics as well. Swati Mitchelle D’souza wrote in Shout Out UK : The National Food Security Bill 2011/12 is an ideal that India will not be capable of translating into reality for the next couple of years. Not until it sorts out existing problems in our public distribution system. Moreover the current health report of the Indian economy is not favourable for such a costly exercise to take place.

While attempting to feed its population, particularly 300 million poor and marginalized, through a constitutional acknowledgement of a ‘right to food’ is noble and for a country of 1.2 billion people the scale of such undertaking is mind blowing. But there are reasons to believe that the bill is impractically ambitious. At best the bill proposes to give fast and short term relief – so short term that political parties in opposition can accuse the UPA Government of bamboozling the electorate with promise of cheap food.

The bill is divisive. It divides the population as ‘rural’ and ‘urban’ to start with and then proposes percentages of each population as priority group (read poor) and ‘general’ group (read rich, middle income and low middle income). The priority group will, by constitutional enactment, be entitled to buy 7 kilograms key grains (rice, wheat and pulses) each month per head at highly subsidized rates and the general group can buy 3 kilograms of key grains at half the market price. Even with my limited knowledge of economics, this does not make much sense to me. This appears to me as an attempt to ignore/bypass the price mechanism of the food grain market that the Government of India has not in good control. The bill does not mention how the government will identify people in each group. Since lawmakers have passed the task of identifying the poor to individual states without saying what methods to use, officials will likely continue to conduct poverty surveys in an erratic, unsystematic way. The Indian poor are marginalized not only by economy but caste, gender, geo-local distribution and even political ideology.

Development economists Jean Dreze and Reetika Khera, who study the impact of India’s right-to-food programs have on poverty, show that some states improved food distribution by making the food program open to all residents. I have little trust on political masters identifying the poor and marginalized.

The bill is apparently impractical. It depends solely on public distribution system. Rationing is a concept conducive to handling scarcity but hardly goes well with distributing abundance. The corruption and inefficiency in Indian PDS is well known. It is very difficult to be convinced that such a system, without any radical reform, will perform well to distribute 80 million tons of food grains held in public stock.

One may wonder why they call it National Food Security Bill. “Every person shall have physical, economic and social access, at all times, either directly or by means of financial purchases, to quantitatively and qualitatively adequate, sufficient and safe food, which ensures an active and healthy life”, says National Food Security bill, July 2011. Subsidized or not, are food grains food? Between food grains and wholesome food on plate there is requirement of such essentials as cooking fuel and clean water. The bill forsakes the difference between food and food grain in a sweeping proposal of a subsidized purchase.

It appears to me that Indian Food Security Bill is conceived entirely on the basis of an accessibility constraint, that is, the notion is that there is enough and good quality food (either produced and procured) in public stock and it is only the constraints in the distribution/storage chain that keep Indian poor hungry. If it is right, then the bill includes a damaging proposal of the direct cash transfer to below poverty line (BPL) families instead of food grains. People cannot eat cash.

A deeper introspection makes one doubtful about the accessibility question as the only basis of food security. Food security has three aspects, according to Dr. M.S. Swaminathan, Member of Parliament (Rajya Sabha) and Chairman Emeritus M. S. Swaminathan Research Foundation (MSSRF). Availability of food is a function of production; economic access to food is a function of purchasing power; and absorption of food in the body is a function of clean drinking water, sanitation and primary health care. Food Security is, therefore, not all about availability of cheap food grains.

Food Security in long term in a country like India cannot be ensured without inclusion of effects of Climate Change on agriculture, land use patterns and changes in dietary needs. India’s National Food Security Bill does not appear to have taken these into careful consideration. Unless India sees a future when it can buy its total food requirement from outside and that looks pretty absurd to me, the predictions for Indian agriculture is grim. Within 2080, India’s total agricultural production may reduce between 15 to 50 % on account of increased GHG emissions and a projected 2 degree Celsius rise in average temperature.

Projected changes in agricultural production in 2080 due to climate change. Reproduced from Achieving food security in the face of climate change- Final report from the Commission on Sustainable Agriculture and Climate Change

The hunger and malnutrition so prevalent in Indian societies, mainly, rural, poor and marginalized, is less due to problem of access to food but more due to abject poverty, unsustainable livelihoods, lack of health care and education of people. Is national Food Security Bill by cash and food grain subsidy through PDS trying to divert public attention from the root causes that Indian Governance has so far failed to address?

“Our belief is that if people are educated and they can find sustainable livelihoods they can come out of the cycle of poverty and be freed from malnutrition and hunger,” says Chanchalapathi Dasa, vice chairman, Akshaya Parta Foundation, reiterating Gandhi’s philosophy that the pathway to ending hunger should involve opportunities for everyone to earn their daily bread.

Feature Image courtesy : Gyan Yatra

3 Comments

  • Food Security bill will not help poor but create more inflation and poverty!!!!!!!!!
    http://brainsickthoughts.wordpress.com/2013/05/25/lord-of-corruption-ring-food-security-bill/

  • Even in the United States, many people go hungry. Amid Congresses’ desire for budget cuts, we have also cut some of the programs which help the poor and disadvantaged. We are beginning to see the rise in food prices due to extreme weather conditions and droughts. Those who have little money, will also have little food.

    Your map showing the expected decrease in food production due to global warming is certainly informative. I hope you don’t mind if I clip it and use it. I’ve also started another petition asking our Congress to begin planning for the effects of global warming on agriculture. I hope you don’t mind if I post the link as I would like your readers to sign it if they would like at http://signon.org/sign/congressional-agricultural.

    • I’d be rather glad Jesse. No one should go to bed hungry. In India or the US.

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