National Food Bill: A short review of the critiques
|Picture from Forbes India|
What? The National Food Security Bill aims to provide food to 67% of India's 1.2 billion people by distributing heavily subsidized food grain (5kg of grain @ Rs.1/kg). First introduced in 2011, the bill has invited heated debate, caused parliamentary disruptions and is yet to be passed.
Why the criticism?
Why the criticism?
- Where will the money to finance the scheme come from? Gurcharan Das argues that the key problem is "70% of the people will get food at 10% of the cost when only 1% should be targeted. The rest is a waste." The government plans to source some money for grain by reducing fertiliser subsidy but this will have implications for agricultural productivity and farmer input costs. Scheme touted as well-intentioned but fiscally irresponsible.
- Targeting vs universalisation: Who do we target? The statistics are contradictory and one must be careful when defining and counting people who are 'hungry' vs 'malnourished' vs 'starving'. Regarding identifying beneficiaries, is is more prudent to identify the rich and exclude? Or identify the poor and include. Experts say the former may be easier because it is highly onerous for the poor to prove through paperwork that they are 'poor enough' to be eligible for benefits.
- Only focuses on carbohydrates (through grain), what of malnutrition, chiefly due to protein deficiency? This is particularly alarming when considering the argument that food security is necessary but not sufficient for nutrition security. NGOs have also flagged the issue of child malnutrition not being adequately addressed by the bill.
- What of the system? How does one plug leakages and avoid bypasses (hoarding, black markets). Surjit Bhalla quotes statistics to show the PDS is "a massively corrupt, wasteful system" and argues against propagating a similar system without addressing systemic problems.
- Repercussions on food production: Will cause significant decrease in food production because a farmer who can buy grain at Rs. 1 per kg will have no incentive to grow grain it. Also, will this result in India's forced integration into global agricultural markets because of increases in agricultural imports?
- The government hopes to reduce intermediaries and sources of leakages by cash-for-food transfers into bank accounts, routing the transfers through Aadhaar numbers. However, the Aadhaar card is still a voluntary biometric social identity system.
Way forward? Can the Chattisgarh model be upscaled? Chattisgarh enacted the Chhattisgarh Food Security Act (CFSA) which has universal coverage. It's strengths are based on (a) full computerisation of PDS, (b) ensuring greater transparency by allowing for public scrutiny of all records, and (c) creating accountability by giving Gram Panchayats (local governance institutions) priority in running ration outlets strengthening accountability. One needs to question. How do we want to alleviate poverty? Is it by just giving food or empowering people to be able to grow/buy their own food and thereby enhancing capabilities? Gurcharan Das maintains that by giving virtually free assets, the state undermines its social contract with the public and "reinforces the present malaise over poor governance and corruption, and widens the gap between people’s aspirations and government’s performance". MNREGA has spawned a similar public expectation of right to work without strengthening livelihood security. Swaminathan Aiyer says that growth will lead to a food secure nation, not bills that distribute food to the poor.
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