P Chidambaram was at his rhetorical best in Jaipur yesterday defending the food security ordinance. “The Food Security Ordinance which I hope becomes a bill is intended to deal with both hunger and malnutrition. There are direct benefits, there are huge indirect benefits,” the finance minister said.
But does supplying more grain to nearly two thirds of the country’s population at a highly subsidised rate really help? There is more than enough evidence from the past three decades that it doesn’t.
The amount of grains distributed through the public distribution system has gone up dramatically over the years. As T N Ninan wrote in a recent column in the Business Standard “Back in the 1980s, the government distributed an average of nearly 16 million tonnes of foodgrain each year through the public distribution system (PDS). The 1990s saw an increase in the PDS throughput to just over 17 million tonnes. The striking change came in the decade of the “noughties”, which saw the annual figure climbing to around 20 million tonnes, then 30 million tonnes, and in the final years of the decade more than 40 million tonnes. Now the figure is closer to 50 million tonnes. On a per capita basis, the grain made available through the PDS has doubled, from 20 kg per year in the 1990s to 40 kg now.”
But even this hasn’t helped tackle the country’s malnutrition problem. As Jean Drèze and Amartya Sen, who are seen as the intellectual gurus of the current Congress led UPA government, write in their new book An Uncertain Glory – India and Its Contradictions “In at least one field – that of nutrition and especially child nutrition – South Asia fares distinctly worse than sub-Saharan Africa. More than 40 per cent of South Asian children ( and a slightly higher proportion of Indian children) are underweight in terms of standard WHO norms, compared with 25 per cent in sub-Saharan Africa (the corresponding figure, incidentally, is less than 12 per cent in every other region in the world).”
This is something that other experts also agree with. A research paper titled National Food Security Bill: Challenges and Options authored by several authors at the Commission for Agricultural Costs and Prices(CACP), Ministry of Agriculture, points out “According to National Family Health Survey (NFHS-3) conducted in 2005-06, 20 per cent of Indian children under five years old were wasted (acutely malnourished) and 48 per cent were stunted (chronically malnourished). The HUNGaMA (Hunger and Malnutrition) Survey conducted by Nandi Foundation conducted across 112 rural districts of India in 2011 showed that 42 percent of children under five are underweight and 59 percent are stunted.”
One reason for this could be that a major portion of the subsidised grain distributed through the PDS never reaches the intended beneficiaries. It is estimated that in 2009-10, the PDS had a leakage of 40.4%. This is a significant improvement from 54.1% in 2004-05, but is a large number nonetheless. The food security scheme is being executed through the same ‘leaky’ PDS.
The other reason for the lack of nutrition is the fact that improving nutrition is not simply about selling grains to more people at a subsidised rate. “Access to sanitation facilities and women’s literacy in particular are found to be strong factors affecting malnutrition,” write the CACP authors.
Drèze and Sen compare sixteen extremely poor countries on various social indicators. When it comes to access to improved sanitation, India is 13th on the list. Only Cambodia, Haiti and Nepal come behind India on this indicator. In fact Pakistan and Bangladesh fair much better than India on this indicator, and so does war-torn Afghanistan. “In India, a full 50 per cent of households had to practise open defecation in 2011, according to the latest population census – a higher proportion than in almost any other country for which data are available…This hardship passes largely unnoticed, and indeed, the need for universal access to basic sanitation facilities has not been a major concern in Indian planning till very recently,” write Drèze and Sen. And it is well worth remembering here that the Congress Party has ruled the country for a major period of time since independence. So if lack of sanitation leading to malnutrition is a problem in the country, it is because the Congress party has chosen not to address it till date.
There is enough evidence to prove that food security scheme is unlikely to do much on the improvement of nutrition front. What about the scheme helping people to buy rice and wheat at very subsidised rates and hence ensuring they do not have to go hungry?
As a recent article in the Mint 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 government’s own data conclusively proves that people are able to buy as much rice and wheat that they need.
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 Minta 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.”
Food prices have gone up dramatically over the last few years due to the easy money policy run by the Congress led UPA government. (You can read the complete argument here). During the period 2008-2009 to December 2012, the food inflation averaged at 10.13% per year. It has more or less continued at same levels since then. And this is one of the major reasons that has been impacting nutrition, at least over the last few years.
Lack of nutrition among children and needs to be tackled on a war footing. The trouble is that the medicine being prescribed for it just does not work. As Ashok Gulati and Surbhi Jain of CACP point out in a research paper titled Buffer Stocking Policy in Wake of NFSB (National Food Securities Bill) “There is a need to innovate in our food management and welfare policies so that same expenditure brings much higher returns in terms of tackling hunger and malnutrition of this country.” And that is really not happening.
Given this, P Chidambaram might well want to remember what Abraham Lincoln, the great American President, who brought slavery to an end, once remarked: “You can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time.”
(Vivek Kaul is a writer. He tweets @kaul_vivek)