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Food Security Bill: Making sense of the numbers

We are already spending Rs 67,310 crore on food subsidies. The National Food Security Bill will increase this by only Rs 30,000 crore, just 4% of the corporate taxes that are being booked as revenues foregone, says Sachin Kumar Jain. The added expenditure will still mean a subsidy of only Rs 3.25 per person per day

Subsidised foodgrain

Amidst the cacophony surrounding the Lokpal Bill, the National Food Security Bill 2011 was quietly tabled in the Lok Sabha. What the Government of India has fleshed out in the bill is actually in line with its constitutional obligations (Section 47) and obligations under various international conventions. The bill has been conceived in the larger context of prevailing food and nutritional insecurity in one of the fastest growing economies of the world.

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 non-availability/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.

I take 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 ill-informed. 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 food-deficit 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 present draft of NFSA 2011 is not revolutionary, it is modest. India must think and decide where her priorities lie.

(Sachin Kumar Jain is an activist and researcher closely associated with the Right to Food Campaign)

Infochange News & Features, January 2012