People's Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)


Vol. XXXIII

No. 25

June 21, 2009

 

PROPOSED FOOD SECURITY LAW

 

Important Issues For Consideration

 

Brinda Karat

 

ONE of the most important and urgently required measures listed in the 100 day agenda of the government is the proposed legislation for food security. There is little doubt that if conceived of and implemented properly it will bring great relief to the people, affected as they are by the relentless price rise of foodgrains. But will the specific proposals outlined in the presidential address for a food security act to provide 25 kilos of foodgrains at three rupees a kilo to all BPL families actually benefit the food insecure? Today around six crore families, identified as BPL are eligible for subsidised foodgrains. 2.5 crore of these families, are further categorised as Antodaya families considered the poorest among the poor and are entitled to get 35 kilos of wheat at two rupees a kilo per month. The day the act as outlined by the president comes into force their entitlement will be cut by 10 kilos. Secondly they will have to pay one rupee more per kilo of wheat. If they want to make up the shortfall by buying 10 kilos of wheat from the market, they would have to pay at least 120 rupees at the current market rate of 12 rupees a kilo of wheat. For the 3.5 crore BPL families although the proposed price is about one rupee fifty paise less per kilo than what they have to pay today, the lower price is negated by the cut in the entitlement, in their case also by 10 kilos per BPL family. So the answer to the question is no, the proposal will not benefit the food insecure On the contrary, if implemented in its proposed form it will deprive the poor of their present entitlements and on the other hand, it will save the exchequer at least 4000 crore rupees in the annual food subsidy. This is a strange way of going about providing food security. Clearly the present proposal will have to be revised to ensure that the allotment of 35 kilograms is not reduced to 25 kilograms. Secondly Antodaya families who receive wheat at two rupees a kilo should continue to do so.

 

The other crucial question is who should be eligible for subsidised foodgrains under the law? Food security has been defined by the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation as “the physical and economic access for all people at all times to enough food for a healthy life.” A law that seeks to ensure food security must base itself on such a definition.  The truth is that the present estimates of the food insecure in India who require subsidies are questionable. Since the vast majority of people find work in the unorganised sector with wildly fluctuating incomes, accurate assessments of their ability to fulfill their food requirements are difficult to make. The Arjun Sengupta commission on the unorganised sector had assessed that 77 per cent of India’s adult population spent less than 20 rupees a day. How can food requirements be met with such a low spending capacity?  Can an Act for food security ignore this reality? Yet the government proposal is to limit the eligible only to BPL families. It will be recalled that when the NREGA bill was introduced in 2005, the government draft wanted to limit it only to BPL families. It was only because of the intervention of the Left that this right became available to all who needed the work. At a time when India has the largest population who suffer hunger and food deprivation in the world, to limit a food security law to only BPL families is a cruel example of the rhetoric of inclusive growth actually concealing a policy that reduces entitlements. As is well known and documented, a large section of the poor are excluded from the BPL category. For example NSS data from the 61st round shows that more than half of rural manual labourers, the section most in need of subsidised food, do not have BPL cards. In Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, the exclusion among these sections was as high as 71 per cent and 73 per cent respectively. One reason for exclusion is the incorrect identification of the poor with corruption playing its role in the wrong distribution of BPL cards. The other more substantive reason for exclusion is twofold: firstly, the current methodologies used by the Planning Commission for estimating poverty and secondly the linking of subsidized food allocations to the States based on  these wrong estimates.

 The CPI(M) has consistently demanded that the definition of poverty on the basis of which the Planning Commission makes its estimates, must be revised. It is a national scandal and shame that whereas in the last five years the number of dollar billionaires has increased from nine to fifty three and where inequalities have grown, the poverty line in monetary terms  is calculated at just 11.80 rupees for an adult in rural India and 17.80 rupees for urban India and any one with an income above that is considered above the poverty line and ineligible for government subsidies. Responding to the demand primarily by the Left parties for a relook at the methodologies of poverty estimation, the prime minister had set up a expert committee headed by S Tendulkar. The recommendations are expected at any time. Reportedly, the methods suggested will lead to an increase in the numbers of BPL families at least in rural areas. If that happens it will be a welcome step, however  the reasons for inaccuracy of food insecurity measurements will still remain.  

The solution lies in delinking food allocations to the broad poverty estimates done by the Planning Commission. For the last decade or so, the estimates of poverty are translated into exact numbers of the poor and then further divided into units for food allocations. While broad poverty estimations are certainly required to guide government policy, to link such estimates to concrete numbers for deciding allocations of food is grossly unjust and unfair. The assessments of most state governments, some like Bihar, Tripura and Bengal who have done detailed house to house surveys, put the numbers of those who require subsidised foodgrains at around 10.5 crore families or 40 per cent more than the official Planning Commission estimate of poverty.

The central Rural Development ministry has its own set of criteria in the form of a set of 13 questions to actually identify poor households. These criteria had been strongly critised by the Left and others. At present a committee under the chairmanship of N Saxena is working to revise the identification criteria. But however inadequate and misleading the criteria, the rural development based surveys had consistently resulted in a much higher identification of poor households compared to that of the Planning Commission. But as part of the neo-liberal agenda of cutting down subsidies, it was arbitrarily decided by the central government in the late nineties, that the numbers of poor households identified had to match the numbers of poor estimated by the Planning Commission.

The proposed food security law should break these arbitrary linkages. This is a critical flaw in the proposal which needs to be revised.

The central government must also be sensitive to the fact that even while it had delayed such a legal food security in spite of the relentless increase in the prices of foodgrains in the last five years, at least ten state governments have already moved ahead to provide food security programmes, most of them superior to the proposed new law. Almost all the ten states have increased the numbers of those eligible for subsidised foodgrains by using their own criteria which is much more inclusive than the criteria used by the central government. For example Chattisgarh has included all tribal families and female headed families as important criteria, providing 35 kilograms of foodgrains to 70 per cent of the state’s population, at one rupee per kilo for Antodaya families and 2 rupees for the rest. Kerala has included all tribal and dalit families and all families of fisherpersons, apart from nine core criteria. Kerala also provides 35 kilos of rice per family at 2 rupees per kilo. Even though the central allocations of subsidised foodgrains are for a much lower percentage of the population, the Kerala government has used different criteria that ensures subsidised grains to 30 per cent of the population. Andhra Pradesh provides 80 per cent of the population rice at 2 rupees per kilo at 6 kilo per head depending on the size of the family. Tamilnadu has adopted a universal PDS providing 16-20 kilos of foodgrains at one rupee a kilo to all families. For these states the food subsidy from their budgets are extremely high, 1450 crores rupees annually for an economically deprived state like Chattisgarh to over 2800 crores rupees in Tamilnadu and 3000 crore rupees in Andhra Pradesh. The policies of the central government to cut allocations of foodgrains to states for the non-poor category on the basis of arbitrary grain offtake assessments also led to higher costs to the states. Between 2006 and 2008 the wheat quotas to APL were cut by over 73 per cent. Thus those state governments who started their food schemes after 2006 have had to spend huge amounts from their budgets to help strengthen food security in their states. The central government which has control over foodgrain allocations, shifted a big part of the burden onto state governments who themselves are facing a serious resource crunch. Therefore as an immediate measure towards food security and to ensure the sustainability of state schemes, the central government should restore the cuts in allocations to the states at subsidised prices. Given the large stocks with the government, well above the buffer stock norms, this should not be a problem.

 

The key to an inclusive approach to food security is to make the system universal as it was prior to the targeted system introduced in 1996. The advantages of a universal system are well documented.  In India, there is little doubt that the errors of exclusion of the deserving far outnumber the errors of inclusion of the undeserving. If a universal system at BPL prices including an expanded Antodaya segment is adopted and backed by law it will, according to estimates made by eminent economists, still be less than 2 per cent of GDP. The government could do an exercise to calculate the amount of revenue foregone in the huge tax concessions given to corporates. It would find that it is more than what it would cost to take the necessary steps in eliminating food insecurity and hunger.