Five questions govt needs to answer on food security

 sonia-maino-la-fidanzata-italiana-di-rajiv-gandhi-29-gennaio-1968-ap2Vivek Kaul 
Sonia Gandhi wants the chief ministers of fourteen states in which the Congress party is in power to role out the food security scheme in letter and spirit, and in quick time. Some media reports suggest that the scheme will be rolled out on August 20, which also happens to be the birth anniversary of Sonia’s late husband Rajiv.
While there seems to be a great hurry to launch the scheme there are some basic questions that the government needs to answer.

a) It has been pointed out time and again that the right to food security is likely to benefit 82 crore Indians. It seeks to cover 50% of the urban population and 75% of the rural population. The trouble is that no clear eligibility criteria for identifying the intended beneficiaries has been specified. It has been left to the state governments. As Jean Drèze wrote in a recent column in the Business Standard “For instance, the identification of eligible households is left to the discretion of the government. In the absence of clear eligibility criteria, no one is really entitled to anything as a matter of right; this defeats the law’s purpose.”
So the question is how will be the intended beneficiaries be identified.? The lack of a mechanism already seems to be causing problems. A report in the Daily News and Analysis points out that a presentation being made Sheila Dikshit, the chief minister of Delhi, was cut short by food minister KV Thomas. As the report points out “Dikshit’s presentation was cut short by food minister, when she mentioned that 32  lakh beneficiaries of existing schemes would be covered by the food security ordinance. She was reminded that in Delhi 72 lakh people are estimated to gain from the food security scheme. She had mentioned that Delhi had 2.62 lakh BPL card holders and 2.21 lakh are in the rehabilitation colonies and other 40,500 are in slums. Even these figures made just 26 lakh persons. Delhi CM then added another 10 lakh beneficiaries covered under the Antyodaya Ann Yojana and Anna Shri Yojana. She was told to undertake a fresh survey and draw the list of beneficiaries.”
Haryana Chief Minister Bhupinder Singh Hooda was in a similar situation. “Similarly, Hooda also come out with a figure of just 39 lakh beneficiaries.  He was also told that as per the population of his state, he needs to draw a list of not less than 1.69 crore,” the DNA reports.
So the calculations of the Delhi chief minister tell her that there should be 36 lakh beneficiaries(26 lakh + 10 lakh beneficiaries under the Antyodaya Ann Yojana and Anna Shri Yojana) of the food security scheme in Delhi. The food minister feels that there are 72 lakh estimated beneficiaries. Dixit has been asked to do a fresh survey and draw up a list of beneficiaries. The gap of 36 lakh (72 lakh minus 36 lakh) need to be filled.
Hooda needs to fill in an even bigger gap of 1.3 crore (1.69 crore minus 39 lakh). Both Hooda and Dixit want to launch the scheme on August 20, which is a little over a month away. How are so many people going to be identified in such a short period of time? And the bigger question is why has no method for identification of intended beneficiaries be prescribed? Sheila Dikshit plans to distribute food security cards to those eligible for the scheme. 

b)What is the food security scheme going to cost every year? The finance minister P Chidambaram in the budget speech he made earlier this year said “I have set apart Rs 10,000 crore, over and above the normal provision for food subsidy, towards the incremental cost that is likely under the Act.” The total food subsidy in the government budget for 2013-2014(i.e. The period between April 1, 2013 and March 31, 2014) is set at Rs90,000 crore. Chidambaram’s estimate will be lower for this year simply because the scheme will be launched in large parts of the country only during the second half of the year.
Economist Surjit S Bhalla writing in a column in The Indian Express puts the cost of the food security scheme at Rs 3,14, 000 crore. Bhalla’s calculations are fairly simple and straightforward to understand and put across the likely cost of the scheme more than clearly.
The Commission for Agricultural Costs and Prices of the Ministry of Agriculture in a research paper titled 
National Food Security Bill – Challenges and Options puts the cost of the food security scheme over a three year period to Rs 6,82,163 crore. During the first year the cost to the government has been estimated at Rs 2,41,263 crore. Andy Mukherjee, a columnist for the Reuters, puts the total cost of food security at $25 billion or Rs 1,50,000 crore (assuming $1 equals Rs 60).
And if all these numbers aren’t enough there is the original estimate of Rs 27,000 crore when the idea of the Right to Food Security was first mooted in the National Food Security Bill tabled in the Parliament in December 2011. As Jean Drèze and Amartya Sen write in 
An Uncertain Glory – India and Its Contradictions “The additional resources required to implement the Bill were officially estimated, at that time, at Rs 27,000 crores per year.”
So how much is the food security scheme eventually going to cost the government and in turn the taxpayers? The estimates as one can see vary anywhere from Rs 27,000 crore to Rs3,14,000 crore. Can the government at least provide us a clear estimate of that? Or would that even be possible for the government to do, given that it has specified no method to identify the intended beneficiaries. Hence, it has no idea of how many people it will eventually end up covering under the scheme. So how does it calculate the cost? 

c) The food security scheme aims to provide subsidised wheat and rice to nearly 82 crore people. In order to procure the required rice and wheat the government already has an elaborate procurement system in place. It uses the Food Corporation of India and various other state agencies to buy rice and wheat directly from the farmers. The rice and wheat thus bought will be later sold at a subsidised price by the government.
What does the government plan to do in bad years when the production and/or procurement of rice and wheat are hit? In the current year the procurement of wheat by the government has declined by 33 per cent to 25.08 million tonnes. This has been attributed to aggressive buying by private traders. As of now this is not a reason for worry for the government primarily because of the excess wheat that it had bought during the previous years.
But what happens in a year during which production of rice or wheat is hit. As the CACP research paper cited earlier points out “With 60 percent of India’s farmland dependent on monsoon rains, drought years can slash production and force the country to import large quantities. The government already procures one-third of the cereals production and any increase in procurement will have enormous ramifications on the cereal economy/markets and would crowd out private sector operations with a consequent effect on open market prices.”
The government has the option of importing grains. But that is easier said than done, specially in case of rice. “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,” the CACP paper points out.
Andy Mukherjee of the Reuters explained the consequences of what would happen during a year of bad harvest, a lot more clearly, in a recent column. “When the domestic Indian crop is insufficient, the programme may destabilize a thin global rice market…Once the bulk of Indian consumption bypasses the local open market – where prices can and do rise in years of bad harvest – the full brunt of the country’s demand will have to be met by supply from Thailand, Vietnam, Pakistan and the United States. That will in turn cause prices to surge for countries dependent on imports, such as Nigeria, Senegal, Bangladesh, Indonesia and the Philippines,” he writes. Not only is the price of rice going to go up in India, the world prices will go up as well. We will start exporting food inflation in the years to come.

d) Are the states really ready to launch the food security scheme? Of the fourteen Congress governments in the country only two have committed to launch the scheme on August 20, 2013, the birth anniversary of Rajiv Gandhi.
The government plans to use the public distribution system (PDS) to distribute rice and wheat. Estimates made by CACP suggest that the currently the system has a leakage of 40.4%. “In 2009-10, 25.3 million tonnes was received by the people under PDS while the offtake by states was 42.4 million tonnes- indicating a leakage of 40.4 percent,” the research paper points out. This is a marked improvement from 2004-05 when the leakage was around 54.1%.
Drèze and Sen in their book An Uncertain Glory – India and Its Contradictions divide the PDS into ‘old-style’ PDS and ‘new-style’ PDS. “Basic features of the old-style PDS include narrow coverage, large exclusion errors, erratic supply of food and massive corruption. The new-style PDS is based on a focused effort to tackle these interrelated problems, and to achieve broad coverage, low exclusion errors, regular supply, and relatively small leakages,” write the authors.
States like Tamil Nadu, Chattisgarh, Andhra Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh, Odisha and Rajasthan, are a part of the new style PDS, Drèze and Sen point out. But large states like Uttar Pradesh and Bihar are still on the old style PDS. This will ensure a tremendous leakage of rice and wheat that is distributed at a subsidised price in these and other states which still have old style PDS. 

e) The government ultimately plans to move food security onto the cash transfer system from the current PDS. So beneficiaries will be paid in cash which they can use to buy rice and wheat from the open market. But what will happen to the elaborate grain procurement system that the government has built through the Food Corporation of India in that case? As Drèze and Sen write “If the PDS were to be replaced with cash transfers, the government would have to devise good ways of using all the rice and wheat it procures every year. The procurement system has a momentum of its own, and is unlikely to be dismantled any time soon. Upbeat estimates of massive ‘food subsidy’ savings in the event of a transition to cash transfers effectively assume a discontinuation (or at least a sharp reduction) of foodgrain procurement, but this assumption is rarely discussed. Nor is the political feasibility of discontinuing food procurement given any room in these calculations.”
These are important questions for which the government needs to answer or they will comeback to haunt us in the time to come.
The article appeared on on July 15, 2013

(Vivek Kaul is a writer. He tweets @kaul_vivek)

Right to food security will make things more difficult for salaried middle class

Vivek Kaul
There are no free lunches in life, though at times its not obvious who is footing the bill. Take the case of the right to food security bill which guarantees 80 crore Indians or two thirds of the population, subsidised rice, wheat and cereals.
The bill proposes to provide 5 kg of food grains to an individual every month at the rate of Rs 3 per kg of rice, Rs 2 per kg of wheat and Rs 1 per kg of cereals. The food minister KV Thomas expects that the extra burden on food subsidy will be about Rs 20,000 crore. Also 61.23 million tonnes of food grain would be needed.
Prima facie this is a very noble idea. But the question is who will be footing the bill for this? The answer is the tax paying salaried middle class. Allow me to explain.
In the financial year 2011-2012 (i.e. the period between April 1, 2011 and March 31,2012) the Indian government through the Food Corporation of India(FCI) and other agencies procured 63 million tonnes of grains (primarily rice and wheat).
If the right to food security bill is passed by the Parliament (as it is likely to be, why would any political party in their right sense oppose it?), the government will have to procure a greater amount of grains. The government estimates suggest that 61.23 million tonnes of food grain will be needed just to meet the requirements of the right to food security. There are other government food programmes running as well, and hence the 63 million tonnes of grain that the government currently procures may not be enough.
So the government will have to buy a greater amount of grain in the coming years. In order to do that it will have to keep offering a higher price. The government sets a minimum support price(MSP) for wheat and rice (and other agricultural commodities as well) every year and this has been going up over the last few years.
FCI and other state agencies acting on the government’s behalf buy grains produced by the farmer at the MSP. In the years to come the government is likely to buy more rice and wheat at a higher MSP. This means a lesser amount of rice and wheat will land up in the open market and thus push up prices. This argument does not work only if the amount of rice and wheat being produced goes up significantly and that cannot happen immediately in the short run.
Who does this hurt the most? The tax paying salaried middle class is the answer as they will have to pay more and more for the food that they buy.
There are other problems as well. 
The total storage capacity of FCI as on April 1, 2012, stood at 33.6 million tonnes. The Central Warehousing Corporation has 466 warehouses with a total capacity of 10.56 million tonnes. This brings the total storage capacity of the central government to a little over 44 million tonnes. Then there is the storage capacities of various state warehousing corporations which are also used to store grains. But even with that the government does not have enough storage capacity to store the amount of grain that it currently procures and will have to procure from the farmers in the years to come.
This means more grains will be dumped in the open and will rot as a result. As 
The Indian Express wrote in an editorial yesterday “The government will be required to procure more foodgrain at a huge cost, which would require pushing procurement prices even higher, creating storage facilities, and distributing the partly rotted foodgrain through a dysfunctional public distribution system.”
So more rotten food grain will be distributed in the years to come.
The major reasoning behind right to food security is that if subsidised food is offered to people, their nutrition will improve. This is not always the case. Abhijit Banerjee, professor of economics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology explains this
 through an example. “We carried out a nice experiment in China. We gave some people a voucher to buy cheap rice. Instead of buying rice lets say for Rs 10, they could buy it for Rs 2, using the vouchers. The presumption was that this would improve nutrition. This was done as an experiment and hence some people were randomly given vouchers and others were not. When people went back and looked at it, they were astounded. People with vouchers had were worse off in nutrition. They felt that now that they have the vouchers, they are rich and no longer need to eat rice. They could eat pork, shrimps etc. They went and bought pork and shrimps and as a result their net calories went down. This is perfectly rational. These people were waiting for pleasure.”
A similar thing might play out in India as well. The money people will save on buying subsidised rice/wheat, might get channelised onto other unhealthy alternatives. But then that’s an individual decision that people might make and hence needs to be left at that.
The broader point is there hasn’t been enough discussion/debate/trials to figure out the unintended consequences of the right to food bill. One unintended consequence that is visible straight away is the rise in prices of non cereal food.
The money people save on buying rice/wheat can get channelised into buying fruit, vegetable, pulses, fish, meat, eggs etc. But the production for this may not go up at the same pace leading to higher price. As 
The Indian Express points out “The production of fruit, vegetable, pulses, fish, meat and eggs will continue to stagnate, however, as more resources will need to be allocated to push up the production of foodgrain. Instead of land, labour, capital, fertilisers and infrastructure being devoted towards meeting the needs of the population as determined by households that choose what they wish to eat, the country will be diverting resources to producing what the state decides the population must consume.”
As the government offers higher MSPs on rice and wheat, the farmers are more likely to produce that than non cereal food. This for the simple reason that the MSP is set in advance and it gives the farmer a good idea of how much he should expect to earn when he sells his produce a few months later. The same is not true for something like pulses where the government does set an MSP, but does not have the required infrastructure for procurement.
The “nutrition” problem will also continue. As 
Howarth Bouis , director of HarvestPlus, International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), Washington, pointed out in a recent interview to Mint “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. That probably explains the poor nutritional outcomes .” The right to food security will ensure that the poor will find it even more difficult to buy non cereal food which is high on nutrition as it becomes more expensive.
The nutrient deficit of India will continue to remain unaddressed. The right to food security works with the assumption that most of India’s poor may not have access to even the most basic food. That is really not correct as the government’s own data shows. As 
The Mint points out in a recent news report “Apart from the extremely poor, who form a small fraction of the population, nearly everyone else can afford the rice and wheat they require… A February report of the National Sample Survey Office 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. The stark difference across income-classes lies in the level of spending on non-cereal food items, the survey points out.”
So what India needs to eat is more of eggs, vegetables and fruits, and not rice and wheat, as the government seems to have decided to. “Most of the poor can afford as much of rice, or wheat, as they can eat. And if you look at consumption patterns of these items across income groups, it does not change very much. The huge difference between low-income and high-income groups is in the consumption of non-staple foods—fruits, vegetables and pulses. I think that’s what is limiting better nutrition, not just in India but in much of the developing world,” Bouis told Mint.
What all this means is that the right to food security will drive up food prices higher than what they already are. Hence, food inflation will continue to remain high, which in turn will push up consumer price inflation as well. The right to food security will not only hurt those it is intended to benefit, but it will also hurt the tax paying salaried middle class, as they will continue to face higher prices on food.
The passing of right to food also signals that the Congress led UPA government remains committed to higher expenditure, without really figuring out where the revenue to finance that expenditure is going to come from. In simple English that means the government is going to continue to borrow more. Banks will thus have a lower pool of savings to borrow from, which means higher interest rates and higher EMIs will continue. Now who does this hurt the most? The tax paying middle class again.
Estimates made by Global Financial Integrity suggest that between 2001 and 2010, nearly $123 billion of illicit financial flows went out of India. This means around $12 billion per year on an average. At current conversion rate of one dollar being worth around Rs 54, this is around Rs 65,000 crore per year. So Rs 65,000 crore of black money is leaving the country every year. The black money being generated within the country would be many times over.
Of course people who have this black money are better placed to bear inflation because they don’t pay tax. That is clearly not the case with the salaried middle class, who pay tax and also have to bear higher food inflation. The government should be looking at ways of taxing this black money.
Over and above this agricultural income in this country continues to remain untaxed. This is totally bizarre. As Andy Mukherjee of 
Reuters Breaking Views writes in a slightly different context “No government today can muster the political courage to tax the incomes of even very large farmers. But to keep the section of the economy that accounts for 60 percent of employment out of tax undermines the system’s legitimacy…It’s ironic that villagers should have political representation without taxation, while the urban middle class finds itself heavily taxed but politically alienated.”
Taxing agricultural income remains out of question. Meanwhile, the salaried tax paying middle class will continue to be screwed.

The article originally appeared on on March 20, 2013 
(Vivek Kaul is a writer. He tweets @kaul_vivek)