Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Food Security Bill (India)

Salient features of the Food Security Bill are as follows:

• President Pratibha Patil on June 4, 2009 said that a National Food Security Act would be formulated whereby each BPL family would be entitled by law to get 25 kg of rice or wheat per month at Rs 3 a kg, a promise made by the Congress before general elections 2009.

• The draft Food Security Bill would provide 25 kg of wheat/ rice to BPL households at Rs. 3/- per kg. For some, it is just old wine in a new bottle and would rely excessively on existing infrastructure and logistical support of the public distribution system (PDS).

• If made into a law, the draft Food Security Bill would reduce the allocation for a below poverty line (BPL) household (e.g. in the case of Antodaya Anna Yojana) from 35 kg of rice/ wheat per month to 25 kg of rice/ wheat per month. This would appear contradictory to many who expected the Bill to be a benign effort of the UPA-II (2009-****) to ensure food security.

• There are possibilities of increased food subsidies amounting to Rs. 70,000 crore per annum if the Bill becomes a law, which might be opposed by those who prefer to follow neo-liberal doctrine. Subsidies are usually opposed on the pretext of distortion in prices, inefficiency and leakages. The Interim Budget 2009-10 estimate of the food subsidy bill in 2009-10 was Rs. 42,490 crore.

• The exact number of BPL households may vary according to the definition of poverty line one selects. In that case, it would be difficult to target the original BPL households under the new Food Security law. There are four different estimates for the number of BPL households: one by Prof. Arjun Sengupta (, another by Dr. NC Saxena (, World Bank estimates and the Planning Commission estimates.

• According to Prof. Arjun Sengupta who chaired the National Commission for Enterprises in the Unorganized Sector, 77% of the population of India lives below the poverty line. Dr. NC Saxena, a retired civil servant acting as a Commissioner appointed by the Supreme Court, feels that half the country’s population of 1.15 billion is below the poverty line, which he apparently defines as a monthly per capita income of Rs 700 in rural areas and Rs 1,000 in urban areas. While a Planning Commission estimate puts the number of below poverty line (BPL) families at 62.5 million, state governments estimate that this number is closer to 107 million. Some experts feel that availing the public with more number of BPL ration cards help the state-level politicians to win elections through populist means. The World Bank’s figure for the percentage of population below the poverty line in India is 42 per cent, based on 2005 data.

• The Uniform Recall Period (URP) Consumption distribution data of National Sample Survey (NSS) 61st Round places the poverty ratio at 28.3 per cent in rural areas, 25.7 per cent in urban areas and 27.5 per cent for the country as a whole in 2004-05. The corresponding poverty ratios from the Mixed Recall Period (MRP) consumption distribution data are 21.8 per cent for rural areas, 21.7 per cent for urban areas and 21.8 per cent for India as a whole. While the former consumption data uses 30-day recall/reference period for all items of consumption, the latter uses 365-day recall/reference period for five infrequently purchased non-food items, namely, clothing, footwear, durable goods, education and institutional medical expenses and 30-day recall/reference period for remaining items. The percentage of poor in 2004-05 estimated from URP consumption distribution of NSS 61st Round of consumer expenditure data are comparable with the poverty estimates of 1993-94 (50th Round) which was 36 per cent for the country as a whole. The percentage of poor in 2004-05 estimated from MRP consumption distribution of NSS 61st Round of consumer expenditure data are roughly comparable with the poverty estimates of 1999-2000 (55th Round) which was 26.1 per cent for the country as a whole

• Instead of better implementation of the already existing schemes such as the Targeted Public Distribution System (TPDS), Antodaya Anna Yojana (AAY), Integrated Child Development Scheme (ICDS), Mid Day Meal Scheme (MDMS) etc., the Food Security law might make things unduly worse and unnecessarily complicated. A cynical question here would be: Is the Food Security Bill going to replace all such food related schemes that existed before its enactment?

• If the Bill is about ensuring food security, how can it leave those who may not fall below the poverty line but are already exposed to food insecurity? The Rome Declaration (1996) made during the World Food Summit states that ‘food security is achieved when all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs and food preferences for an active life’. Food security is about nutrition security too. If that is the case, the Food Security Bill has to rethink about the quality of foodgrains supplied and distributed. The Food Security Bill must also aim at providing fortified foodgrains along with edible oils, salt and essential spices. A balanced diet would ensure both food and nutrition security. The basket of commodities, which would be available to the consumers, should reflect local tastes and preferences and must include locally grown cereals and legumes.

• The alternative draft Food Security Bill that has been prepared by Prof. Jean Dreze and his team and which has been scrutinized by 10, Janpath, according to media resources, has clauses to make the various food related programmes running in the country more accountable and transparent. There is focus on public accountability and more coverage of BPL households under the yet to be enacted Food Security law. Prof. Dreze's draft points out that subsidy would not rise due to reduction in allocation for rice/ wheat per BPL household.

• If targeting of BPL households is done under the Food Security Bill, then it might lead to inclusion (including the non-poor) and exclusion (excluding the poor) errors. It would be wiser to go for universalization (rather than targeting) as was recommended by the Committee on Long Term Grain Policy under the chairmanship of Prof. Abhijit Sen (2000-02).

• There are apprehensions that sustainability of Food Security law would be at peril if India faces lower agricultural production due to poor harvest, drought etc. in the future. Is India ready to rely upon food imports and food aid to ensure right to food? At present, the country has been facing shortage in south-west monsoon rainfall that might affect agricultural production and prices of commodities. Is India ready to rely exclusively upon biotechnology for increasing its agricultural production so as to ensure food security for all?

• Some analysts feel that India presently has adequate buffer stocks to enact and implement the Food Security law.

• The Food Security law is nothing but a gimmick so as to increase the popularity of the UPA II. This is a forward-looking step to ensure vote for the Congress so that Rahul Gandhi could lead UPA-III.

• Seeing the popularity of the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS), which helped the Congress to win the 2009 parliamentary elections, the newly constituted Government has thought of bringing out the Food Security Act within the first 100 days of its stay in the office for the second time.

• The World Development Report 2008-Agriculture for Development, which has been brought out by the World Bank mentions that India presently faces the problem of depleting ground water level that makes agriculture unsustainable and poses risk to environment. If rice is one of the foodgrain that would be supplied when the Food Security Act comes into being, then more and more farmers would go for cultivation of rice. In the Punjab region, overexploitation of groundwater takes place thanks to the huge subsidies given on electricity. Moreover, minimum support prices (MSP) for rice increase the financial attractiveness of rice relative to less water-intensive crops, which makes depletion of ground water table more obvious.

Source of the image: