Year : 2011 | Volume
: 55 | Issue : 4 | Page : 289--292
Food security bill and the failings of the debate around it
Vikas Bajpai1, Anoop Saraya2,
1 Research Fellow, Centre for Social Medicine and Community Health, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, India
2 Professor, Department of Gastroenterology and Human Nutrition, All India Institute of Medical Sciences, New Delhi, India
Professor, Department of Gastroenterology and Human Nutrition, All India Institute of Medical Sciences, New Delhi - 110 029
|How to cite this article:|
Bajpai V, Saraya A. Food security bill and the failings of the debate around it.Indian J Public Health 2011;55:289-292
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Bajpai V, Saraya A. Food security bill and the failings of the debate around it. Indian J Public Health [serial online] 2011 [cited 2021 Sep 21 ];55:289-292
Available from: https://www.ijph.in/text.asp?2011/55/4/289/92407
The World Food Summit at Rome in 1996, attended by the highest representatives of the government of 186 countries, defined "food security" as a multidimensional concept which implies, "all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life."  It is only natural then that all measures directed at food security, whether nationally or internationally, should be judged against this gold standard.
For more than a year now, we have been witness to much noise about ensuring the food security of India's poor. Even as nearly 2500 children die in the country every day due to malnutrition, the Supreme Court admonished the government for allowing the foodgrain to rot in the godowns and ordered it to distribute to the poor rather than have it go waste. The government on its part has pledged to release extra foodgrains for the public distribution system (PDS) to be made available to the below poverty line (BPL) families.  However, no sooner than these solemn promises were made in the highest court of the country, the Planning Commission Chief, Montek Singh Ahluwalia, gave a clarion call, "It is time to correct our fiscal deficit on the subsidy-oriented side so that we can have some qualitative reduction in fiscal deficit," leaving little to speculate as to the possibility of extra food for the poor on a sustainable basis. 
Given the rumblings in the government that food procurement and distribution should be privatized, even the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI) had come up with its own report on the restructuring of the entire food procurement and distribution, on the lines as is the practice in the USA and other capitalist countries of the West. They obviously view pervasive market forces in food economy to be the need of the hour. But most of all, with regard to eradicating hunger in the country, much hope had been generated by the Food Security Bill. There is an ongoing debate over this bill, with the deliberations of the National Advisory Council (NAC) and the empowered group of ministers on this issue being given a wide coverage. Given the background that India is home to the highest number of hungry people in the world, both in absolute and proportional terms, the Food Security Bill (hereafter referred to as the Bill) could have served the pretext of scripting a new story.
The story, however, has gone awry even before it was scripted. After months of high-decibel debate, the NAC has finally passed a much watered down proposal for Food Security Bill that legally entitles 75% population of the country for subsidized foodgrains. This 75% population is to be further divided into "priority households" that shall be entitled to [INSIDE:1] 1/kg of millets, [INSIDE:2] 2/kg of wheat and [INSIDE:3] 3/kg of rice, and "general households" that shall be entitled to 20 kg of foodgrains every month at a price that is not to exceed 50% of the minimum support price.  And even before the ink of its recommendations dried, the government appointed Rangarajan panel had declared NAC's recommendations "unfeasible" on account of "supply side constraints."
Nonetheless, if the debate around the Bill is anything to go by, then the seeds of its failure had been sown in its very conceptualization. It would be illuminating to trace the debate to learn from the way different parties worked their minds in providing for India's food security. The debate was overwhelmingly focused on two issues - the quantum of monthly food grain entitlement to a family and the "universalization of PDS."
In matters relating to public welfare, the government's position has always been minimalist - the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) manifesto promised 25 kg of grain at [INSIDE:4] 3/kg for BPL households.  A report in The Hindu said, "the Empowered Group of Ministers on food security is opposed to the universal approach, and wants the Bill limited to giving 25 kg of foodgrains to those living below the poverty line, citing paucity of funds and foodgrain."  However, the blooming season of mega scams in our country only betrays a paucity of will to act for people's welfare.
The Planning Commission representative on NAC, Dr Abhijit Sen, had struck a very progressive position - "If you are taking the rights approach, the law must be universal in scope." He even advocated, "There should be one price, as the BPL/APL (Above Poverty Line) distinction divides society."  The catch, however, was revealed when he added, "Providing grain at [INSIDE:5] 3 is not economically viable."  The correct way in his opinion was to provide grain at a price reasonably close to the minimum support price (MSP), for which a small subsidy would be required - say, rice at [INSIDE:6] 12 a kilogram and wheat at [INSIDE:7] 8/9 a kilogram, i.e. [INSIDE:8] 420 and [INSIDE:9] 315 for 35 kg for wheat and rice, respectively, per month. Incidentally, in its affidavit on the determination of poverty line, filed before the Supreme Court on the 10 th of May 2011, the Planning Commission averred: "The poverty line emerging from the Tendulkar methodology is a consumption of [INSIDE:10] 579 per capita per month for urban areas and [INSIDE:11] 447 per capita per month for rural areas at the 2004-2005 prices." It further admitted, "The poverty line would be significantly higher if updated to reflect the current prices."  The pricing policy suggested by the Planning Commission means that the poor certainly cannot afford this grain, except of course by selling part of it, as the expense incurred on fuel, oil and other ingredients to cook their food would hardly leave them with any money to meet other necessities of life. Dr. Sen further premised, "In a normal year, most people would not exercise their right to these foodgrains. Of course, in years when the market price shoots up for any unforeseeable reason, more people will avail themselves of the PDS and the government must be prepared to meet that contingency."  This was the clearest indication that the government had little intention of implementing whatever the NAC finalized; for when the hope is that people would "normally" not use PDS, where is the need to have an effectively functioning PDS? Further, the concession of [INSIDE:12] 3 a kilogram of foodgrains "could be" extended to the poor only in such "unforeseen years" when market prices shoot up, that too through "smart cards"  - a suggestion that has an uncanny concordance with the proposal of issuing "food stamps" that has been so vigorously argued in the FICCI report.
For the civil society, what was to be cause cιlθbre became "cause turned sour," but they themselves have to blame for it. In what they have described as addressing "the structural roots of hunger," they demanded an Act that ensures "a universal PDS (providing at least 50 kg of grain per family with 5.25 kg of pulses and 2.8 kg of edible oils); special food entitlements for destitute households (including an expanded Antyodaya program); consolidation of all entitlements created by recent Supreme Court orders (e.g. cooked mid-day meals in primary schools and universalisation of ICDS); support for effective breastfeeding (including maternity entitlements and crθches); safeguards against the invasion of corporate interests in food policy; and elimination of all social discrimination in food-related matters. Further, the Act must include strong accountability and grievance redressal provisions, including mandatory penalties for any violation of the Act and compensation for those whose entitlements have been denied."  They also emphasized, "Ensuring the right to food requires, on the other hand, economic access for people, involving for instance adequate employment and wage levels, the protection of existing livelihoods, and equitable rights over land, water and forests." The question however is - Does this suffice to strike at "the structural roots of hunger"? We shall assess this shortly.
To begin with, the NAC, led by the UPA Chairperson, Ms Sonia Gandhi, argued a fairly substantive opinion for making the Food Security Act all inclusive and comprehensive. However, it was not long before the establishment put its safety valves in operation to let off much steam. Ms Gandhi remarked in one of the subsequent meetings that the poor might wonder why the rich were being given the same entitlements - a comment that paved the way for the view that there should be a system of two prices / differential entitlements.  In its final assessment, the NAC quietly buried its initial proposal to begin implementing a universal PDS first in the 150 poorest districts of the country, followed by gradual implementation in the rest of the country. 
It is understandable that the civil society activists on the NAC have criticized its final recommendations as "a minimalist proposal that misses many important elements of food security" and retains a PDS with a framework that is "very fragmented and fails to abolish the artificial distinction between APL and BPL households."  But suppose all the demands put up by the civil society activists vis-ΰ-vis the Act were accepted; would that have ensured food security in the sense of its definition that we began with?
An intuitive introspection is enough to help us decipher that poverty is the biggest impediment in ensuring "economic access" to food even if we presume that physical access should not be a problem. However, in the debate that we have summarized above, though there is mention of poor, hardly has any emphasis been placed on poverty reduction. It must be mentioned though that in its critique of the NAC's final recommendations, the "Right to Food Campaign" does talk of sustainable development process that protects people's livelihood and development of agriculture, albeit only in generalist terms, however, the thrust of the critique is on making the PDS more inclusive and comprehensive. 
The omission of poverty reduction in the critique is more than providential. In India, agriculture still forms the bed rock of rural economy in so far as it employs 52% of the country's workforce. Talking of poverty reduction would necessarily entail far-reaching structural changes in agriculture that would not only make it economically gainful for those engaging in it, but also increase its productivity which remains a lot poorer than many other countries at similar levels of development. The most important characteristic of Indian agriculture is the highly skewed ownership of land. The National Sample Survey Organization (NSSO) survey for land holding patterns in 2003 showed that at the all India level, marginal and small owners constituted 90.4% of the total number of owners. But they owned only 43.43% of land, whereas medium and large farmers who constituted only 9.60% of landowners owned as much as 56.21% of land.  Besides this, there is a huge chunk of landless agricultural laborers, by far the largest and the poorest segment of the population in the country. Though landless, the land hunger of this segment remains insatiated.
Such an iniquitous division of the principle means of agricultural production - the land - ensures relations of production which result in disproportionate appropriation of produce by the handful of the rich peasantry, and thereby disincentivizing agriculture for the majority who work in it. Land reforms that transfer the ownership of land to the tiller is the most potent poverty alleviation program which will unleash in its wake a productive potential that will ensure both the "physical and economic" access to food for an overwhelming majority of our population. Besides, land means power and people know from their life experiences that it is the powerful who are cared for. Minus this empowerment, all plans, all promises are but written in water. You empower the people; they will themselves ensure that the government cares for them.
Both the government and the civil society activists, party to the above debate, know all this. Leave aside the government; but how come the civil society chose to mention " equitable rights over land" as less than a footnote in the whole scheme of the "Food Security Act." The problem actually is that what they describe as addressing " the structural roots of hunger" is nothing more than giving a " policy orientation" to the immense structural problem of " hunger" that afflicts millions of poor Indians. The essence of this " policy orientation" is that it seeks to ameliorate the symptoms of food insecurity while avoiding its causes. Even at its best implementation, i.e. marvellously functioning PDS with universal coverage, it will only lead to a mass of perpetually "dependent people" subject to the government's sweet will.
We have already noted how fickle the government's will is. Any doubts as to this are dispelled by what the Prime Minister revealed himself while talking to the newspersons at his residence on 6 th of September. Talking of the Bollywood film "Peepli Live" that deals with the subject of rural indebtedness and displacement, his indirect message to the likes of the film's farmer protagonist Nattha was, "There is no such thing as a free lunch."  He further said, "The only way we can raise our heads above poverty is for more people to be taken out of agriculture," a far cry indeed from the need to protect their livelihoods. 
Meanwhile, the government is keeping a step ahead of the samaritans of civil society. Even as they cried hoarse about the sham that NAC played on food security, at many places the government has already replaced the PDS with "smart cards" that will allow the beneficiaries to get ration for a given amount from any shop rather than have a fixed quota of foodgrain through PDS irrespective of the fluctuations in the market price of food. Worst still, all this debate for a just, humane, comprehensive PDS seems to have done little to mobilize the poor themselves who ought to be the motive force for ensuring the success of any food security program. Perhaps they also know how ephemeral is this debate to what their real needs are the need for economic security, which is the key to food security.
We most emphatically affirm to the crucial importance of strong redistributive policies in tackling the immediate crisis along with addressing the " real structural roots"; but to go silent about the latter while emphasizing the former is to disarm the people in their fight for a just and honorable solution to their food insecurity and it is in this sense that it amounts to supplanting a " revisionist agenda" in place of a " revolutionary agenda" in the sphere of food security.
The opponents may scoff at us saying, 'The government is not willing to increase the entitlement from 25 kg to 35 kg and you talk of redistributing land." To this, we would like to conclude by recounting a small story, that of a lion cub who was abducted by jackals and subsequently rescued by other lions. Unable to hunt as he was, the other lions exhorted, "you may not be able to hunt, but you are a lion cub; you can at least roar." Our exhortation is that we all must roar and roar in defence of the people's rights.
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