Needed: a food security law

12 April 2010

For 60 years, India has consistently failed its poor and now is high time for a Food Security Act that would improve nutrition levels among the masses.

The reconstitution of the National Advisory Council under Sonia Gandhi, announced by India’s United Progressive Alliance government, is good news. The original NAC died prematurely because Gandhi quit it in the wake of the office-of-profit controversy. Members of parliament cannot ordinarily hold a remunerative office.

The law has now been amended to free the NAC of this constraint. The new NAC must advise the UPA on bringing about inclusive growth. The UPA had promised this before the 2004 elections and reiterated it in 2009.

The UPA has manifestly betrayed the promise. Over the past five years, poverty ratios have remained extremely high despite rapid GDP growth; 77 per cent of Indians survive on Rs20 or less a day. While the top 10 per cent earn First World annual incomes such as Rs5 crores, the wretched of the earth must make do with Rs7,000 a year.

Regional and sectoral disparities have grown alarmingly as growth has become skewed and small-holder agriculture has become unviable. This drove 1.99 lakh farmers to suicide between 1997 and 2008. This staggering number is unprecedented in world history. Farmers’ suicides have spread from Vidarbha and Andhra even to prosperous Punjab, India’s agriculturally most developed state.

An additional 100 million people have been driven into poverty by two decades of “free-market” or neoliberal policies. India’s Human Development Index rank has slipped from 121 in 1991 to 134.

The UPA was expected to introduce a semblance of equity in the growth process. Instead, it has veered rightwards and given tax-breaks to the rich, while leaving the poor to cope with 18 per cent food inflation.

The UPA has failed to provide nutritional security and public healthcare. The healthcare system’s failure enormously burdens even the not-so-poor and forces them to go to quacks or die from denial of treatment.

The new NAC must urgently address these two issues, just as its predecessor concentrated on the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act and Right to Information. It must soon pay attention to other issues like safe drinking-water provision, agrarian infrastructure, education and climate change.

A Food Security Act is urgently required to improve nutrition levels among the masses. Hunger in India has horrifying dimensions. In the Global Hunger Index of the International Food Policy Research Institute, India ranks 65 (of 88 nations). Pakistan’s rank is 58.

Despite two decades of rapid GDP growth, India scores worse than its neighbours, barring Bangladesh, and also worse than over 20 Sub-Saharan African countries which have experienced economic collapse, civil war, famine and genocides during the past quarter-century.

None of the 17 major Indian states surveyed falls in the “low” or “moderate” hunger category. Twelve states fall in the “alarming” category, and one — Madhya Pradesh —in the “extremely alarming” category. Four states — Punjab, Haryana, Kerala and Assam — fall in the “serious” category. On a global scale, India’s best-performing state, Punjab, ranks 34th.

This is corroborated by India’s National Family Health Survey finding that 48 per cent of Indian children are undernourished. More than half of India’s lactating mothers are anaemic.

Food grains availability in India has decreased from 200 kg per person a year at the beginning of the 20th century to under 170 kg. As a result, 33 per cent of Indian adults have a body-mass index (weight in kilogrammes divided by the square of height in metres) less than 18.5. (The normal range is 18.5 to 25. People under 18.5 are malnourished, those above 25 obese.)

In half the districts of India, especially those with a large Dalit or tribal population, more than half the people have a BMI under 18.5. By World Health Organisation norms, these areas are in a permanent state of famine.

This famine must be combated through an extensive, reliable public food distribution system. The Food Security Act is meant to do just that. Sonia Gandhi proposed in June 2009 that the Act ensure a monthly household entitlement of 35kg of cereals at Rs3 per kg and especially focus on vulnerable groups such as single women, the elderly, the disabled, etc.

The UPA referred the proposal to an Empowered Group of Ministers, which has diluted it beyond recognition. It redefines food security as something less than nutritional security. It recommends a monthly quota of 25kg of rice/wheat per poor family without fixing the price, which will be announced separately by the government.

This neither recognises the Right to Food, nor creates adequate entitlements for all, as recommended by the Kolkata Group chaired by Amartya Sen. It also falls way below the recommendations of a committee appointed by the Supreme Court, chaired by Justice DP Wadhwa, for 35kg of grains for those who earn less than Rs100 a day.

If the Wadhwa Committee’s report is adopted, the number of families treated as Below Poverty Line (BPL) would rise to 200 million, in place of the 105 million estimated by the states and the 92.5 million by another official committee.

The EGoM’s draft is minimalist, reneges on the promise of nutritional security, and perpetuates today’s collapsing PDS which supposedly only targets BPL families. Estimates of their number vary from 28 to 50 per cent of the population. These estimates are based on convoluted methods and are unreliable.

The more reliable National Sample Survey (2004-05) found that only one-half of the poorest households had a BPL card. Worse, many non-poor people use influence to illegally procure a BPL card and corner PDS grain.

There’s a radical solution to the BPL problem: universalise the PDS and not target it at the poor, because targeting is always fraught with exclusion and corruption. It would also mean treating the Right to Food as a fundamental right of all citizens, being part of the Right to Life under Article 21 of the Constitution.

Targeting the PDS is arbitrary, exclusionary, divisive, corruption-prone and creates competition among the poor. Universalisation would generate pressure for the PDS to perform well for all, as it has done in Tamil Nadu.

A universal PDS will naturally raise the food subsidy bill. The most generous estimate, based on the Wadhwa report, is that another Rs82,000 crores would be needed over the current allocation of Rs35,800 crores.

This is puny compared to the Rs5,40,268 crores of revenue forgone this year by the government through subsidies and exemptions for the rich. It is also one-half of India’s military spending. Surely, India can limit its ballooning military expenditure — which has tripled in dollar terms since the 1998 nuclear tests — to provide its poor minimal food security.

The UPA must not proceed with the EGoM-recommended Food (In)Security Act. The NAC should radically revise it along the lines suggested above while universalising the PDS. There is no other way the poor, who are excluded from the food market by high prices, can receive adequate and safe nutrition and thus develop their minimal potential as human beings.

South Asian states owe this to their underprivileged citizens, who are victims of structural, deep-rooted poverty and entrenched inequalities for which they aren’t even remotely responsible. The Indian state has failed its poor for 60 years. It’s time it redeemed its promises just when its revenues are almost three times higher than six years ago.