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 www.firstpost.com on March 20, 2013
(Vivek Kaul is a writer. He tweets @kaul_vivek)