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'Depriving the poor in the name of corruption is not a solution': Aruna Roy

By Diva Arora

Giving all households -- priority and general -- a common entitlement of not less than 25 kg at Rs 3/2/1 for rice/wheat/millets will solve the problem of identifying the poor who deserve to be subsidised under the Food Security Act, says RTI and right to food campaigner Aruna Roy, dismissing various criticisms of the Bill

Food Security Bill Aruna Roy

Magsaysay awardwinning activist Aruna Roy is a founder member of the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan, a people's organisation in Rajasthan. She has been in the forefront in getting the Right to Information Act passed and in incorporating strong citizen entitlements in the ambitious Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act. Roy has been a member of the National Advisory Council headed by the UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi and has been in the forefront in shaping the UPA's Food Security Bill. In this interview she clarifies several misconceptions about the Food Security Bill.

The Food Security Bill is expected to cost the exchequer more than Rs 4 lakh crore to implement, much of which is expected to be siphoned away as seems to have been the case with NREGA. What are your views on this?

Firstly, this figure of Rs 4 lakh crore is incorrect. The estimate in the bill is Rs 27,000 crore. The major components of this legislation with cost implications (PDS system, midday meals, ICDS) are already operational and this law is just to give it a legal guarantee framework with enforcement mechanisms. When this subsidy is actually implemented, the figure is likely to be much lower than 27,000 crore, as it will not be implemented in the entire country in one go, but in phases. The figure of Rs 4 lakh crore is grossly exaggerated and has factored in the cost of infrastructure including buildings for anganwadis, likely increase in minimum support price in future, possible increases in foodgrain cess etc.

Secondly, being a welfare state, the Indian government has in the past, and should continue to play in the future, a definitive role in treating its citizens as legitimate entitlement holders, and not as passive beneficiaries. The government's vision for the poor should be seen in congruence with ensuring their access to provisions imperative for a dignified life, and not through the prism of doles.
This must be true especially in times of prosperity, so that safety nets can be ensured for all, for posterity. The rationale behind this legislation is to the right of a life with dignity and to remove hunger.

Apart from the humanitarian aspect, there are many benefits in investing in the nutrition of the population which may not always be able to be captured in quantitative terms. The economic climate is ripe for such programmes given our growing GDP, growth in public revenue, increase in procurement, growing (and wasted) food stocks and significant improvements in PDS in many states.

Lastly, the embezzlement in the MGNREGA being referred to has come to light thanks to the framework built into the law to ensure transparency. Similar provisions are made in the Food Security Bill as well. There are no comparable provisions to stop inbuilt corruption in the private sector, be it the mobile networks or the financial sector that staunchly resist reform. If there is corruption, then governance systems have to be improved. There are at least 10 states in which PDS reform has been conducted, and corruption has been reduced dramatically. It is therefore incorrect to say the money will just be siphoned off. Depriving the poor in the name of corruption is not the solution.

Government is presently procuring 52 million tonnes of foodgrain every year. Foodgrain procurement has peaked during the last three years because of good rainfall and a good crop. If we have a bad monsoon, and the procurement goes down, how will the foodgrain shortfall be met? Importing foodgrain will only serve to increase global prices and cause an additional burden on the exchequer?

If people are hungry and need food, the state will have to do whatever it can to remove hunger. The Bill requires procurement at levels that are close to existing norms. Further, these procurement levels have been growing at the rate of 5% per year over the last 20 years and this upward trend is likely to continue. So, as per the Food Security Act, the procurement rate does not even have to increase, it just has to be at the level it is. Even if we consider the alternative scenario that you describe where there is a bad monsoon and the procurement rates decrease, there are sufficient existing grains in stock (and going to rot) that can be used. In such scenarios, there is all the more reason to have a National Food Security Bill that provides for reallocating grain.

Identification of the poor who qualify for food security has also become a controversial subject with different committees giving different figures on the number of households to be covered. The census to identify the poor is still underway. How do we resolve this situation?

Indeed, the identification of the poor to be subsidised is genuinely problematic. The earlier system of automatic exclusion at least had a criterion of identification. In the current proposed differentiations of general, priority and excluded households, there is an extremely confusing and complicated criterion. It is impractical and impossible to implement. People will have no clarity on which category they belong to and what their respective entitlements are – this will lead to an opaque system and to the exclusion of many people.

The general category is receiving entitlements that are minimal and the existing entitlements have been reduced from 4 kg to 3kg of foodgrain per person. Entitlements of general category are linked to the PDS system, but this will only apply on dates as the central government prescribes. Further, the coverage of priority groups has been linked to the official poverty estimates. These entitlements have been put into a schedule in the Act and can be modified by the government without parliamentary approval. Thus we can see that these categories are very difficult to understand and this system is doomed to fail.

What we can suggest is that it shall be permissible for state governments to make no distinction between priority and general households, and to give all such households the same foodgrain entitlements under the PDS, provided that this common entitlement is not less than 25 kg per month, at a price no higher than Rs 3/2/1 for rice/wheat/millets.

The bill may be well-intentioned but it is expected to turn into a logistical nightmare since government delivery systems are hardly in a position to be able to provide foodgrain delivery to 63% of the Indian population. Your comments on this?

The figure of 63% of the population does not hold for basic rights such as education, health and food. These have to be provided to the entire population. Initially, the PDS was intended to have universal coverage. The biggest reason behind the failure in the delivery of foodgrains to the poorest and the most marginalised has been moving from a universal to a targeted system and the consequent errors of targeting. Once the state engages with a process of selecting the intended beneficiaries, the process of identification of the poor turns away from being a purely economic exercise to one fraught with political motives. The costs associated with targeting of the PDS are far more than its intended efficiency projections. That is why in states like Jharkhand and Tamil Nadu were PDS is largely universal, one sees such positive results in its implementation. Yes, the PDS system may have shortcomings but instead of dispensing with it, it must be strengthened. There are examples of states like Chhattisgarh which have shown that the system can be made to work. The NAC draft Food Bill had many suggested reforms for enhancing the reach of the PDS system which have unfortunately been removed from the legislation.

The suggestion of using cash transfers to prevent leakages in the distribution of foodgrains is completely ill-founded. Cash cannot and should never be a substitute for foodgrains. Not only will it lead to more leakages, but a system of pegging cash transfers to inflation and rising food prices will have to be devised. Our efforts must be towards strengthening implementation mechanisms, systems and processes by which the poor can access their entitlements, thereby maintaining a pressure on governments to perform.

Once people are aware of their entitlements, and what is due to them, there needs to be a grievance redress mechanism, for people to resort to in case of violation of their entitlements. Thus, what we have to do is to construct a law that can be used by the people to make its state institutions more accountable. This bill seems to be getting the wrong end of both benefits – neither is it making the state accountable, and also it is inflexible and purposely confusing and will not be a tool of power to the people.

Infochange News & Features, February 2012