The Congress led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government is in a hurry to somehow introduce the right to food security during the course of this year. Media reports suggest that a special session of the Parliament may be convened to get the bill passed.
But there are several major questions that the Congress led UPA government hasn’t answered with regard to the right to food security. This has writer has discussed some of these questions in the past. (You can read them here, here, here and here).
Here are some more important questions that need to be answered before the right to food security can move from being just a Bill to an Act.
1. The current plan is to sell subsidised wheat and rice to nearly two thirds of India’s population through the public distribution system. This system comprises of around 5 lakh fair price shops. Estimates suggest that nearly 60% of the food that is supposed to be distributed through this system is either siphoned off or is simply wasted. Given that, the eventual plan is to move the right to food security to a cash transfer system.
In this those entitled to food subsidy will have to buy rice and wheat directly from the market, at the market price, and the subsidy will be directly paid into their bank accounts or will be given to them through business correspondents hired by banks.
So what happens to the public distribution system in this case? Will it be dismantled? And if that is done, imagine the kind of unemployment it will lead to. Are political parties (even those within the UPA) which are so opposed to foreign direct investment in retail, thinking about this? And these shops are largely located in rural areas.
2. If right to food security eventually does move to a cash transfer kind of system, where the subsidy is direct paid out to those entitled to it, what happens to the elaborate procurement system for rice and wheat that the government has put in place? Currently the government declares a minimum support price for wheat and rice. At this price the Food Corporation of India (FCI) and other state government agencies, operating on behalf of the government, buy wheat and rice from the farmer., which then stocked and distributed through the public distribution system. This system is expected to continue for implementing the right to food security as well.
But what happens once the right to food security moves onto the system of cash transfers? Those entitled to the right to food security will have to buy wheat and rice directly from the open market. And that being the case the government need not maintain the humongous stocks of food grains that it currently does. The government will have to just buy as much of rice and wheat as might be needed to maintain a buffer stock, which currently amounts to somewhere between 14 million tonnes to 22 million tonnes of rice and wheat.
In 2006-2007, 169.1 million tonnes of rice and wheat was produced in the country. Of this, 43.8 million tonnes or around 26% was procured by the government. In 2011-2012, 198.2 million tonnes of rice and wheat was produced. Of this 88.5 million tonnes or nearly 45% was procured by the government.
So procurement rice and wheat by the government directly from the farmers has gone up tremendously over the last few years. And this has happened primarily because of the fact that the minimum support price has been increased consistently over the years. Farmers have been encouraged to sell to the government. If right to food security moves onto a cash transfer based system, what happens to the farmers who have become now used to selling at a fixed price to the government,which they know off well in advance? How fair is it on them? Are these things even being thought about?
While the current system of procuring more and more rice and wheat directly from the farmer has led to severe distortions, but doing away with it suddenly, will have its own severe repercussions.
3. What happens in a drought like situation? In a situation where the production of rice and wheat will come down, how will the government procure the amount that will be needed to be distributed to those entitled to the right to food security? The easy answer is that rice and wheat will be imported. But as this writer has pointed out in the past “Rice is a very thinly traded commodity, with only about 7 per cent of world production being traded and five countries cornering three-fourths of the rice exports. The thinness and concentration of world rice markets imply that changes in production or consumption in major rice-trading countries have an amplified effect on world prices.” (Source: National Food Security Bill Challenges and Options, Ashok Gulati, Jyoti Gujral, T.Nandakumar, Commission for Agricultural Costs and Prices (CACP), Ministry of Agriculture)
What is interesting is that there is a Force Majeure clause in the Right to Food Security Bill using which the government can shirk any responsibility to provide rice and wheat at a subsidised rate.
The Bill provides for a Force Majeure clause (Clause 52) that “the Central Government, or the State Governments, shall not be liable for any claim by persons belonging to the priority households or general households or other groups entitled under this Act for loss/damage/compensation, arising out of failure of supply of foodgrains or meals when such failure of supply is due to conditions such as, war, flood, drought, fire, cyclone, earthquake or any act of God.”
But it is precisely at this point of time that the right to food security, if there has to be one, should be working. As CACP report points out “It is worthwhile to note that precisely in these conditions a failure of market forces, volatility in prices and resultant distress is expected and at times like this the poor and vulnerable would depend on government to ensure their food security.”
4. Also, what is the basic goal of selling rice and wheat at subsidised prices. Who is it supposed to help? As a recent article in the Mint points out “Apart from the extremely poor, who form a small fraction of the population, nearly everyone else can afford the rice and wheat they require, as Bouis points out. A February report of the National Sample Survey Office (NSSO) shows the proportion of people not getting two square meals a day dropped to about 1% in rural India and 0.4% in urban India in 2009-10. Interestingly, the average cereal consumption of families who reported that they went hungry in some months of the year (in the month preceding the survey) was roughly equal to the average cereal consumption of those who reported receiving adequate meals throughout the year.”
So the point is that government’s own data clearly points out that the number of those who cannot even afford to buy rice and wheat for their daily meals is less than 1% of the total population. Doesn’t it make sense to target this section properly than doling out subsidised rice and wheat to all and sundry? But then targeting just them really won’t help the Congress party led UPA to get the votes in the 2014 Lok Sabha election. And if that does not happen how will Rahul Gandhi, get another opportunity to say, I do not want to be Prime Minister?
5. One of the goals of the right to food security is to improve nutrition. How does selling rice and wheat at a subsidised price help improve nutrition? The NSSO data quoted above clearly shows that most Indians can afford the rice and wheat they need to buy. To improve nutrition more consumption of vitamins and minerals is required. Howarth Bouis , director of HarvestPlus, International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), made a very interesting point in an interview to the Mint a few months back. “ Food prices have been going up over time but we have to make a careful distinction in the Indian case between cereal and milk prices on the one hand, and all other foods on the other hand. After the green revolution, yields of rice and wheat shot up, and prices actually came down. Maybe prices have risen in the past couple of years but over the past 40 years, prices have fallen. The story is similar for milk. But if you look at all the other food groups such as fruits, vegetables, lentils, and animal products other than milk, you will find a steady increase in prices over the past 40 years. So it has become more difficult for the poor to afford food that is dense in minerals and vitamins.”
This explains the real reason behind poor nutrition in India. And no amount of selling of rice and wheat at subsidised prices can cure that. If nutrition needs to be improved food inflation which has gone through the roof needs to be controlled.
There are other factors as well. As the CACP report points out “studies have shown that the challenge of improving absorption lies in linking nutrition with health, education and agriculture interventions. Access to sanitation facilities and women’s literacy in particular are found to be strong factors affecting malnutrition.”
These are some more questions regarding the right to food security which need to be answered. In its current form the Right to Food Security Bill is nothing but a vote gathering ploy for Rahul Gandhi and nothing else, the bleeding hearts of jholawalas notwithstanding.
The article originally appeared on www.firstpost.com on May 16, 2013
(Vivek Kaul is a writer. He tweets @kaul_vivek)