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(Article) CSM - May 2013: From Hunger to Food Security

From Hunger to Food Security

The Union Cabinet, headed by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, on 19 March 2013 approved the National Food Security Bill. The food security bill approved is directed towards giving the right to food to around 67 per cent of India’s 120-crore population. The amendments to the Bill will guarantee 5 kg of foodgrains per person per month, while families in the poorest of the poor will continue to get 35 kg of grains per month. As per the bill around 800 crore people will be entitled to get five kilos of subsidised grain per month. Rice will be made available at 3 Rupees per kilo; wheat will cost 2 rupees a kilo and cereal will be sold for 1 Rupees per kilo. The beneficiaries are supposed to be decided by state governments, while the criteria to exclude 33 per cent of population would be provided by the Planning Commission, Thomas said. The scheme will be linked to the Aadhar scheme which provides every citizen with a unique identification number that’s linked to a database that includes the biometrics of all card-holders. It is also evident from the present year budget, that 90000 crore Rupees is allocated for spending on food subsidies with the government setting aside an extra 10000 crore Rupees for the bill. In earlier versions, the Food Security Bill assigned subsidised grains on the basis of priority and general groups, which were demarcated on the basis of poverty levels. The Cabinet gave its nod to the 71 amendments proposed by the Food Ministry, including the one that said the 2.43 crore Antyodaya Anna Yojna beneficiary households will continue to get their quota of 35 kg grains a month under the public distribution system.

Using the census data of 1982, the population was divided into 16 groups defined by age, gender and activity, with recommended calorie intakes varying from 300 calories for children below 1 year, to 3,800 calories for a young man doing heavy work. The average norm was derived as a weighted average: 2,435 and 2,095 calories per person respectively for rural and urban areas, rounded down to 2,400 and up to 2,100. These nutrition norms have since been the accepted basis for poverty studies in India. This is a minimalist definition of poverty, however, since no spending norms are set for essential non-food items such as fuel (for cooking and lighting), clothing, shelter, transport, medical care or education. A household observed to be above the so-called poverty level expenditure satisfies only the nutritional norm and may not be able to access adequate amounts of other necessary goods and services from its non-food expenditure.

Highlights of the Bill

  • The Bill proposes foodgrain entitlements for up to 75 percent of the rural and up to 50 percent of the urban population. Of these, at least 46 percent of the rural and 28 percent of the urban population will be designated
    as priority households. The rest will be designated as general households.

  • Priority households will be entitled to 7 kg of subsidised foodgrains per person per month. General households will be entitled to at least 3 kg.
  • The central government will determine the percentage of people in each state that will belong to the priority and general groups. State governments will identify households that belong to these groups.
  • The Bill proposes meal entitlements to specific groups. These include: pregnant women and lactating mothers, children between the ages of six months and 14 years, malnourished children, disaster affected persons, and destitute, homeless and starving persons.

  • Grievance redressal mechanisms will be set up at the district, state, and central levels of government.
  • The Bill proposes reforms to the Targeted Public Distribution System.

Key Issues and Analysis

  • The Bill classifies beneficiaries into three groups. The process of identifying beneficiaries and placing them into these groups may lead to large inclusion and exclusion errors.
  • Several entitlements and the grievance redressal structure would require state legislatures to make adequate budgetary allocations. Implementation of the Bill may be affected if states do not pass requisite allocations in their budgets or do not possess adequate funds.
  • The Bill does not provide a rationale for the cut-off numbers prescribed for entitlements to priority and general households.
  • The grievance redressal framework may overlap with that provided in the Citizens’ Charter Bill that is pending in Parliament.
  • Schedule III of the Bill specifies goals which may not be directly related to food security. It is unclear why these have been included in the Bill.
  • The Bill provides similar definitions for starving and destitute persons. However, entitlements to the two groups differ.

The year 2013 marks the 70th anniversary of the Bengal Famine which resulted in the death of an estimated 1.5 to 3 million children, women and men during 1942-43. A constellation of factors led to this mega-tragedy, such as the Japanese occupation of Burma, the damage to the aman(kharif) rice crop both due to tidal waves and a disease epidemic caused by the fungus Helminthosporium oryzae , panic purchase and hoarding by the rich, failure of governance, particularly in relation to the equitable distribution of the available food grains, disruption of communication due to World War II, and the indifference of the then U.K. government to the plight of the starving people of undivided Bengal.

Famines were frequent in colonial India and some estimates indicate that 30 to 40 million died out of starvation in Tamil Nadu, Bihar and Bengal during the later half of the 19th century. This led to the formulation of elaborate Famine Codes by the then colonial government, indicating the relief measures that should be put in place when crops fail. The Bengal Famine attracted much attention both among the media and the public, since it occurred soon after Mahatma Gandhi’s “Quit India” call to the British in 1942. Agricultural stagnation and famines were regarded among the major adverse consequences of colonial rule. I wish to narrate the impact of the twin developments, namely, Bengal Famine on the one hand, and the “Quit India” movement on the other, on the minds of students like me. I was studying at the University College, Thiruvananthapuram, during 1940-44, when gruesome pictures of starving children, women and men on the streets of Kolkata and in other parts of Bengal appeared in The Hindu , the Statesmanand other newspapers. The goal of my University education was to get into a medical college and equip myself to run a hospital in Kumbakonam left behind by my father, M.K. Sambasivan, who died at a young age in 1936.

The transformational factor was procurement of food grains from farmers at a minimum support price fixed on the basis of the advice of the Agricultural Prices Commission. A small government programme titled “High Yielding Varieties Programme” became a mass movement owing to the enthusiasm generated among farm families both by the yield revolution and the opportunities for assured and remunerative marketing. Wheat production has continued to rise since 1968 and has now reached a level of 92 million tonnes. A third important factor was the synergy brought about among scientific know-how, political do-how and farmers’ toil, often referred to as the “green-revolution symphony”. While we can be legitimately proud of our progress in the production of wheat and rice and other cereals and millets leading to the commitment of government of over 60 million tonnes of foodgrains for implementing the provisions of the Food Security Bill, there is no time to relax since dark clouds are gathering on the horizon. There would be three threats to the future of food production and our sustained capacity to implement the provisions of the Food Security Bill. First, prime farmland is going out of agriculture for non-farm purposes such as real estate and biofuels. Globally, the impact of biofuels on food security has become an increasing concern. A High Level Panel of Experts on Food Security and Nutrition (HLPE) of the World Commission on Food Security (CFS), which I chair, will be submitting a report shortly on Biofuels and Food Security. In this report, we are pointing out that if 10 per cent of all transport fuels were to be achieved through biofuels in the world, this would absorb 26 per cent of all crop production and 85 per cent of the world’s fresh water resources. Therefore, it will be prudent for all countries to accord food security the pride of place in the national land use policy.

On the occasion of the 70th anniversary of the Bengal Famine, we should derive strength from the fact that we have so far proved the prophets of doom wrong. At the same time, we need to redouble our efforts to help our farmers to produce more and more food and other commodities under conditions of diminishing per capita availability of arable land and irrigation water. This will be possible if the production techniques of the evergreen revolution approach are followed and farmers are assisted with appropriate public policies to keep agriculture an economically viable occupation. This is also essential to attract and retain youth in farming. If agriculture goes wrong, nothing else will have a chance to go right.

From the very beginning it has been taken for granted that industrialisation is the only panacea for development. Our economic policies were so designed that agriculture was categorised as ‘unskilled labour’. Urban areas and industrial enterprises received huge government subsidies, at the cost of agriculture. As a consequence, small farmers and rural labour suffered the inevitable impoverishment. The Green Revolution, sponsored by big industry, was imposed on India. Under the regime, ‘improved’ seeds were produced that survived only on a strong dose of chemicals, fertilisers and pesticides. During a study on wheat production in five states, including Madhya Pradesh, it was revealed that the average cost of production per hectare, which was Rs 561 in the decade 1981- 1990, has risen to a whopping Rs 7,673.70.

As a result, traditional farming suffered an untimely demise; agriculture became a ‘for markets, (controlled), by markets’ enterprise. Small farmers got trapped in debt, and easily cultivable and nutritious coarse pulses and oilseeds became unpopular. Modern, mechanised forms of farming made a huge population of rural labour redundant. Now there is the scourge of a Second Green Revolution in the form of contract farming and ‘industrial- arming’. In this age of biofuel, cane, corn and other such produce are being intensively cultivated for fuel purposes only. Agriculture is being controlled by MNCs and large corporations. How can food security be guaranteed by grabbing natural resources like water and land from small, vulnerable farmers for the purpose of handing them over to big industries?

The National Food Security Bill serves only to register the fact that hunger is a real cause for concern, as in its present form, the bill is not adequately endowed with a vision to address the structural causes of India’s food and nutritional insecurities. Three basic issues need to be highlighted. First, the bill dwells on targeting vis-à-vis universalisation, re-invoking the contentious BPL-APL issue (‘priority’ and ‘non-priority’ households). Intended benefits will be provided to people based on these categories. It is a well-known fact that successive governments have failed to identify the poor. As a result, a large part of the country’s population continues to struggle with hunger in various forms. In such a grim scenario, the government should be talking about universalisation, which is an integral part of the fundamental right to life. Second, the bill provides for the supply of 7 kg of subsidised foodgrain per person per month to ‘priority’ households, whereas a person needs 14 kg a month to fulfil her basic food requirements. Third, the proposed entitlements do not deal with the problem of nutritional insecurity. People in India suffer undernourishment mainly due to protein and fat deficiencies. To cope with this problem, the government should have included pulses (to compensate for protein) and edible oil (to replenish fat). The preamble of the bill says: “…the Supreme Court of India has recognised the right to food and nutrition as integral to the right to life…”

Today development is understood only in the narrow sense of economic growth and GDP. Successive governments have not stepped out of this familiar paradigm to address improvements in living standards and enhancement of people’s wellbeing. How can we accept a growth trend wherein 70% of total GDP is directly under the control of 8% of India’s elite? Growth is important, as it helps create a conducive environment for people to better their living standards. But we cannot accept a growth trajectory that curtails opportunities for the common man and grabs common property and natural resources for short-term gain. While India’s economy has been growing at 6-9% in the last 12 years, undernutrition among her children has dropped a mere 1% in the eight-year period 1998-99 to 2006. Should we accept a token 0.1% decline in childhood hunger per year? We need to understand that underfed people are unable to contribute, even if provided with opportunities, because of lack of capability. We must therefore build an environment of empowerment with nutritional security.

India’s growth story has a flip side. Present levels of malnutrition result in a 2-3% decline in GDP. It causes delays in education, triggers learning disabilities, affects the overall physical and cognitive development of children at an early age. Every year, India loses 1.3 million children under the age of 5 due to undernutrition and nonavailability/ inaccessibility to basic healthcare. Neighbouring Bhutan measures its development according to a ‘happiness index’. With the developed world in the grip of a debilitating economic crisis and the citizens of many countries protesting against prevalent economic policies, India must decide whether people’s wellbeing takes precedence over creating a tiny island of opulence for a handful of people.

We contribute 40% to the world’s overall maternal, neo-natal, infant and child deaths. We have half the world’s undernourished children. Fifty-four per cent of our women suffer from anaemia. We have to end this national variety of colonialism where corporations rule over our farmers and labourers and traders indulge in the business of education and health services and keep people deprived of the very basic services in the name of growth. The resources generated through growth should go towards the wellbeing of all people. Not to subsidise corporations. The proposed bill reposes great faith in targeting the so-called poor and non-poor (under ‘priority’ and ‘general’ households). Let’s remind ourselves that we have been hopelessly unsuccessful in identifying the poor and continue to implement our most crucial food/ social entitlement programmes along exclusionary poverty lines.

The argument further by citing the fact that over 1.6 million hectares of land have been transferred for real-estate and industrial development purposes; natural forest cover is rapidly declining; water resources are drying up and becoming polluted; agricultural production costs have gone up by 189% in the last 20 years; small and marginal farmers have seen no policy interventions aimed at structural protection against the marauders of the open market. We are talking about a growth scenario wherein India needed to create employment opportunities for 45 million people; it could provide employment to only 2.1 million. All these factors are at the root of hunger. Professor Arjun Sengupta, in his report on the unorganised sector, mentions that 77% of India’s population survives on Rs 20 a day. On the other hand, NNMB (National Nutrition Monitoring Bureau) figures show that 76.8% of the population does not receive the prescribed amounts of nutrition!

In the two decades of our new economic policy, one thing emerges strongly: 90% of India’s population received no benefit from it. They manage to survive on the fringes of our political economy. Although our country is being run by economists, they sound helpless and illinformed. Has anyone from the Planning Commission, PMO or RBI ever said publicly that the government doled out almost Rs 6.22 lakh crore as tax revenue subsidy in the financial year 2011- 12? This is registered as taxes foregone, and accounts for 65% of the government’s total revenue. Last year, the figure was Rs 5.36 lakh crore. A total of Rs 23 lakh crore in six years has been stashed away in the corporate world’s coffers. No one has questioned this. Meanwhile, the agriculture subsidy has been converted into direct loans to farmers; petrol has been handed over to the market; public expenditure on basic services like health, education and access to clean water is dropping. Why the hue and cry about NFSA expenditure?

We are already spending Rs 67,310 crore on food subsidies; there will be an increase of only another Rs 30,000 crore (a mere 4% of taxes being usurped by the corporate-economist-government nexus). And what will that do? It will restore the dignity of the people of India. It will help feed the 77 crore people sleeping hungry. The Government of India will only be giving a subsidy of Rs 1,188 per person per year, or Rs 3.25 a day. And still we have ministers, economists, policymakers and consultants who are unhappy with the idea! This is the outcome of welfare politics which has become imperative in the last decade or so. We have been running the Integrated Child Development Services programme with a plan to spend Rs 80,000 crore in the next five years; the midday meal scheme is already in place. We have a 17 crore under-6 child population, 45% of which is undernourished. But we barely spend Rs 1.62 per child per day on their growth and nutrition.

The fact of the matter is that the private food market will lose out on profits due to this legislation, and there will be a control over inflation. The market finds this unacceptable. Take the example of the second and third quarter of 2011-12. While the growth rate came down to 6.8%, food inflation also declined from 16% to 1.7%. There is an argument that it would be better for the government to focus on productivity enhancement rather than on doling out subsidies at the expense of taxpayers. But these two things are not mutually exclusive, they are complementary. India is not a fooddeficit country; we produce surplus foodgrain, we throw it in the sea, we export it. But, for various reasons, it does not reach our hungry people.

Part of this discussion is linked to public procurement and a minimum support price. If the government stops subsidising agriculture, profit-makers will benefit and consumers will have to pay high prices. Take the example of pulses. We pay Rs 36 per kg as the minimum support price to the farmer for tur dal, but the market price was Rs 110 some time ago. There is an urgent need to ensure maximum public procurement, and this can only be done and applied through the public distribution system. The second aspect deals with policy. For the last 20 years, per capita food production in India has been stagnant at around 460 grams per person per day. Although pulses are a key source of protein, their availability has gone down from 70 grams per day in the 1960s to 42 grams in recent times. We adopted new technologies — hybrid seeds, chemical fertiliser and pesticides — in order to increase agricultural production. Punjab sacrificed its community techniques and blindly used chemicals resulting, finally, in steep declines in soil fertility.

The important point is that while our budget grew 5,000 times its inaugural size, food production grew by a measly 400% over the same period. In rural India today, 23 crore people are under-nourished, and 50% of children fall victim to malnutrition. Every third Indian in the age-group 15-49 years is feeblebodied. The government is presently grappling with the target of 22.8 crore tonnes of grain production; it needs to reach a target of 25-26 crore tonnes by the year 2015. The situation is so grim that today every fourth malnourished global citizen is an Indian.

While countless Indian citizens are condemned to sleep on empty stomachs, crores of tonnes of foodgrain rot in the country’s godowns. India has the capacity to store 415 lakh tonnes of grain in its godowns, yet 190 lakh tonnes are stored outside under thin plastic sheets. Speedy distribution of this grain could feed many hungry Indians. Despite instructions from the Supreme Court to distribute 35 kg of foodgrain per person, only 20- 25 kg per capita is being distributed. This shortfall can be addressed by proper utilisation of grain rotting out in the open. Only lack of political and administrative will can be blamed for such debilitating ennui.

Will food security bill take the targeted approach or one aimed at universalisation of food security? If food security is considered an integral part of the fundamental right to life, how can the targeted approach even be considered? When exclusion and caste/class/ gender discrimination have been key to social, political and economic structures, how can any targeted approach address the hunger and food insecurity situation in our country today?

The present crisis of food insecurity is due to the consistent exploitation and negligence of agriculture and the rural sector. Even in this age of breakneck urbanisation, two-thirds of our population depend on agriculture whereas its total contribution to India’s GDP is a dismal 17%. At the other end of the spectrum, private enterprises that are a minuscule 1%, stake their claim to one-third of our GDP. Real food security can only be achieved through an entirely new form of polity. So, we can only hope that this National Food Security Bill will led us to Hunger to Food Security.

Amit Kumar