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The right to food is finally becoming a lively political issue in India. Aware of the forthcoming general elections, parties are competing to demonstrate – or at least proclaim — their commitment to food security. In a country where endemic undernutrition has been accepted for too long as natural, this is a breakthrough of sorts. The food security Bill is a modest initiative. It consolidates various food-related programmes and entitlements that have made gradual headway over the last decade. Provisions dealing with foodgrain entitlements under the public distribution system (PDS) have grabbed most of the attention. Children’s entitlements, however, are possibly more important. These include cooked midday meals for all school-going children and nutritious food (either a cooked meal or a take-home ration) for all children below the age of six, already mandatory under Supreme Court orders. The Bill also provides for maternity benefits – Rs 1,000 per month for six months — for all pregnant women. This is a small step, and since the benefits are not indexed to inflation, their real value could erode very quickly. Nevertheless, the principle of universal maternity benefits is important. The Bill is effectively what remains of bolder proposals initially discussed at the National Advisory Council (NAC). The NAC’s early drafts of the Bill included many provisions that were quietly dropped, one by one, first by the NAC itself and later by the government: social security pensions, special entitlements for vulnerable groups, community kitchens and strong accountability measures, among others. Ironically, Chhattisgarh, ruled by the Bharatiya Janata Party, instead built on the proposals and prepared its own law, enacted in December 2012. A recent survey by the Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi, suggests that its food-related programmes are quite effective. This experience in one of India’s poorest states helps to dispel the notion that the food security proposals are impractical or unaffordable. The controversial parts of the Bill relate to the PDS. The process of targeting below-poverty line (BPL) households has proved very cumbersome, unreliable and divisive. At least three national surveys show that about half of all poor households in rural India do not have a BPL card. Further, as Amartya Sen pointed out 20 years ago, “benefits meant exclusively for the poor often end up being poor benefits.” Some states, however, have dropped the distinction. In Tamil Nadu, the food distribution system covers everyone and works very well. Other states that have also moved towards a more inclusive system in recent years include Andhra Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Himachal Pradesh, Odisha and Rajasthan, among others. All of them have combined this move with other PDS reforms, and the results have been impressive. However, the Bill has many flaws as far as the PDS is concerned.
For instance, the identification of eligible households is left to the discretion of the government. In the absence of clear eligibility criteria, no one is really entitled to anything as a matter of right; this defeats the law’s purpose. Similarly, the overnight imposition of per-capita food entitlements on a system that is currently based on household entitlements is likely to be very disruptive. Media reports give the impression that the Bill involves a major expansion of the PDS. In fact, it is more a restructuring; aggregate foodgrain allocations will remain much the same. The distribution, however, will change, with poorer states getting more and poor households being at much lower risk of exclusion. And the current foodgrain quota for households above the poverty line, which has become a huge, corruption-ridden dumping ground for excess food stocks in recent years, will be much better utilised. Some of the criticisms of the Bill are a trifle ill-informed. Many critics cite wildly exaggerated estimates of the costs of the Bill and barely consider the economic benefits. Others cite a Planning Commission report that found more than half of distributed foodgrain ends up in the black market. That particular report was published in 2005 and is based on data collected in the late 1990s. Much has changed in the meantime. A more pertinent criticism is that cash transfers would serve much the same purpose at lower cost. In some circumstances, cash transfers are certainly appropriate. However, there are many good reasons to be sceptical of a hasty transition to cash transfers. The infrastructure required would take a long time to build. The PDS, on the other hand, is in place, and huge foodgrain stocks – more than 80 million tonnes and growing – are available, so why not make good use of them without delay? In any case, the Bill doesn’t preclude a transition to cash transfers if and when they prove to work better than food subsidies — not just in theory but also on the ground. The immediate issue is not “cash versus food,” but to put in place an effective system of income support and social security. Leaving poor people to their own devices is neither socially just nor smart economic policy. The biggest challenge is to build serious political backing for food security, as has already happened to a limited extent in specific states. Under the cover of supporting the Bill, Opposition parties seem to be trying to scuttle it, out of fear that it will help the United Progressive Alliance stay in power in the next national elections. The government’s own commitment to the Bill is not entirely clear. Four years of dilly-dallying are hard to understand without an element of internal resistance. Finally, the Bill is a fraction of what is required to tackle India’s enormous nutrition problems. The battle for the right to food is far from over.
©2013 The New York Times News Service