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Mon21Apr2014

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Food insecurity in Incredible India

By Kathyayini Chamaraj

A concept note on the proposed National Food Security Act circulated to all states continues to push for a targeted public distribution system instead of a universal one, and proposes to reduce the issue of foodgrains to 25 kg per BPL household, completely ignoring the contentious issue of who is poor and what an adequate and nutritious diet consists of

At a public hearing on the public distribution system (PDS), held before the Justice Wadhwa Committee in Bangalore in December 2008, Sarojamma, a single parent with four children (one of whom is mentally disabled) pleaded for a below the poverty line (BPL) ration card. She had been given an above the poverty line (APL) ration card as she is a garment worker earning Rs 3,500 per month. The APL ration card fetches her only kerosene and no foodgrain in Karnataka. To be eligible for a BPL card, Sarojamma needs to be earning less than Rs 17,000 per year, or less than Rs 1,500 per month. At today’s prices, the rent alone for a measly 10 x 10 sq ft space in Bangalore is upwards of Rs 1,500 a month. So, to be considered poor, the state expects its citizens to be living on air and to have no other needs such as health and education.  

Eeramma, who has been a single parent for 20 years with six children, was seen pleading for an Antyodaya Anna Yojana (AAY) card that would entitle her to 10 kg more foodgrain than her BPL card. Her BPL card gets her a maximum of 25 kg of foodgrain, or around 3.5 kg per person per month for her household of seven. One would have thought one needed at least 15 kg of cereal per person per month to provide 2,400 calories per day merely to exist, let alone eat a balanced diet consisting of pulses, oil, fruit and vegetables that is necessary to grow to one’s full potential and lead a healthy life. The present PDS expects you to become food secure by merely eating an inadequate quantity of cereal! 

There were others like Arthiamma and her husband, both blind, and Ritu (name changed) who is HIV+, who had been given APL cards. Their social and physical vulnerability did not make them eligible for special consideration by the state. 

What is incredible about ‘Incredible India’ is that while it sports a high growth in GDP, it ranks 66th in a list of 88 countries on the World Hunger Index. Almost 50% of its children are malnourished and 75% of its women suffer from anaemia; and per capita food availability has actually decreased between 1991 2004-05. 

“Food security refers to a situation that exists when all people at all times have physical, social and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life,” says an FAO report ‘State of Food Insecurity in the World, 2001’. As reflected in these examples, India’s current public distribution system does not seem to be fulfilling any of the above criteria to ensure the right to food expected of a just and humane society. 

However, into this gloomy scenario comes the UPA government’s hopeful promise of enacting a National Food Security Act. A concept note on the proposed Act, circulated to all state food secretaries by the food secretary, GoI, cites the above FAO quotation and says: “To ensure food security to all citizens of the country based on a rights approach, there is need for providing a statutory basis to food security.” And, “the nutritional status of individual household members is the ultimate focus,” (emphasis added). 

Although these pious statements give the impression that here, at last, is an attempt to address shameful deficiencies in the country’s food security situation, the rest of the concept note is more in the manner of a preamble to a National Food Insecurity Act!  

While civil society is clamouring that the PDS be universalised, without any distinctions between BPL and APL, so that the poor get self-selected as it was earlier when the country was growing at the Hindu rate of growth of about 3%, the concept note seeks to make the targeted PDS statutory. The targeted PDS is costly and gives rise to a lot of corruption in the process of trying to decide who is and who is not poor. This results in the genuinely poor being left out whilst the ineligible get several cards. Economists like Jayati Ghosh say that the cost difference between a universal and targeted PDS is not very great. So what happens to the aim of covering all citizens? 

Currently, the limits of annual income required for a household to be declared BPL are illogical. In Karnataka, for instance, the figures are Rs 11,000 and Rs 17,000 in rural and urban areas respectively. That means that a household of five people in Bangalore would have to be living on around Rs 47 per day, or about Rs 10 per person, on which even a beggar would not survive. In other words, a person would have to be earning less than half the minimum wage of Rs 88 (which itself is inadequate) to be considered poor. If universalisation of the PDS is not accepted, those earning less than the minimum wage need to be considered poor.  

The concept note assumes without any justification that the nation may not be able to procure the required amount of foodgrain or bear the cost of a food subsidy. It is therefore proposing to reduce the scale of issue to 25 kg per BPL household, or 5 kg per person. This, despite the Supreme Court ruling that every BPL family shall be given 35 kg, and that no changes shall be effected in any food-related scheme without its permission. This will result in families having to buy 10 kg from the market, paying more for the same amount of food than earlier.  

Taking all this into consideration, the Wadhwa Committee recommends that “the income criterion needs to be revisited” and that “estimation of poverty should not be made on a criteria (sic)which is less than the minimum wage fixed by the state for agricultural labourers”. Also, that “the government may also consider using calorie intake per person per day as an indicator of poverty”. 

The People’s Health Movement has demanded that every person be given enough foodgrain to ensure 2,400 calories per day. Moreover, the predominance of cereals and lack of adequate pulses, oil, fruit and vegetables in the diet of most Indians is what is causing high levels of malnutrition among them. We need to find ways to get these items to the populace through the PDS, if malnutrition is to be addressed. 

The concept note does not mention the word ‘malnutrition’ at all; it completely ignores the contentious issue of defining who is poor and how much and what constitutes ‘adequate and nutritious food’. It does not recognise anywhere that entitlements should be linked to levels of malnutrition, if food security is to be achieved. It concentrates wholly on how to reduce the number of BPL families, reduce entitlements, and reduce subsidies. A great way indeed to ensure food security and raise India’s position on the World Hunger Index! 

Further, the concept note seeks to take away the freedom enjoyed by the states until now to: (1) fix the numbers of those who are BPL in their respective states; (2) decide the amount of foodgrain to be given to them, and (3) fix the rate at which these shall be provided. As a result of this freedom, the note says, the actual number of BPL ration cards issued by all the states is 10.68 crore while the accepted figure of BPL households by the Centre is 6.52 crore, resulting in an excess of 4.16 crore BPL cards. Tamil Nadu, for instance, has universalised the PDS, while Karnataka has issued BPL cards to 85% of households. 

The Centre is planning to curtail this right and insist that all states abide by the levels of poverty fixed by the Planning Commission, and that the Centre shall decide the numbers of poor that shall be eligible in each state, the amount of foodgrain that shall be given, and the rates at which these shall be issued to families. To ensure that states do not defy these restrictions and fix their own entitlements, the Centre is planning to bring in an enforcement mechanism under the Food Security Act that will monitor the states’ adherence to the Centre’s fiats and penalise those that transgress them. Here is a blatant attempt not only to centralise decision-making and curtail the freedom of the states in a federal set-up, but also to reduce the basic entitlement to food of a hungry and malnourished nation. 

The present allocation under the TDPS to the BPL and AYY categories is 277 lakh tonnes which entails a “huge commitment on the central pool for BPL families,” the concept note adds. The Planning Commission’s latest poverty estimates, according to 2004-05 figures, reveal that the country’s BPL population is only 27.5% whereas it was 36% according to 1993-94 figures. As per the above, the number of BPL families (including AAY) will come down from 6.52 crore to 5.91 crore, and the number of APL families will go up from 11.52 crore to 15.84 crore. In view of this, based on the current scale of issue, annual allocations of foodgrain for AAY and BPL categories may come down from 277 lakh tonnes to 251 lakh tonnes, and for the APL category it will go up from 162 lakh tonnes to 202 lakh tonnes, the concept note estimates.

However, in view of this increase of 40 lakh tonnes for the APL category, the concept note makes the categorical statement that “the central government will not be able to guarantee distribution/supply of any quantity of foodgrain for the APL category from the central pool,” and that the “APL category may be excluded from TDPS,” except for APL families in some food-deficit and inaccessible states/union territories. This reasoning fails to recognise that there will be a saving of 26 lakh tonnes of foodgrain as a result of the reduction in BPL numbers. The effective increase in foodgrain allocation to the APL category will thus only be 14 lakh tonnes. To use this reasoning to restrict the PDS only to 27.5% of the population is to deprive the rest of the population, which is unable to meet the requirement of 2,400 calories per day, of the right to food. Researchers like Utsa Patnaik estimate this number to be 70% of the population. 

While civil society demands that BPL cards be updated every year in order to capture those who have slid back into poverty due to various exigencies like debt, drought, displacement, etc, the Centre is talking about annual updation only to seek out those who have risen above the poverty line, with the aim of taking away their BPL cards. 

The concept note recognises that some households may have more than the average number of persons whereas others may have less than the average. But nowhere does the Centre make a commitment to provide foodgrain to every individual in a family, whether it has five or 10 members. It continues to think in terms of an upper ceiling of five units per household as the maximum that a family can receive. What happens to the guarantee of having the “individual as the focus”? 

Even more worrying seems to be the Centre’s intent to do away with other food-related schemes such as the Annapoorna Yojana for elderly destitutes and supply of foodgrain from the central pool to welfare institutions, hostels, etc, in the name of avoiding multiplicity of schemes, as beneficiaries of these schemes may already be covered under the TDPS. By mentioning the school midday meal scheme, the ICDS scheme, and the nutrition programme for adolescent girls as schemes that cause multiplicity, the Centre is hinting that these too may be curtailed or done away with altogether. Or, at the very least, that it is keeping its options open. There goes the hope of 50% malnourished children and anaemic adolescent girls of ever leading a full and healthy life. In the same breath, the Centre is proposing that the Antyodaya sub-category within the BPL also be done away with on grounds that sub-categories are unnecessary. 

The Centre doles out a plethora of excuses as to why it may not be able to obtain or sustain current levels of foodgrain procurement at minimum support prices, or sustain their distribution at current levels. And that all this uncertainty could necessitate the import of foodgrain. The Centre also hints that if the issue price of rice and wheat are fixed at Rs 3 per kg for all BPL families, the annual food subsidy may go up from the current Rs 37,000 crore to Rs 40,380 crore. And that continuing to provide foodgrain for the APL category would further affect this figure. Nowhere is there an acceptance that these costs have to be borne as a matter of course if food security is to be ensured. The possible increase in cost is spoken of more in the nature of a looming threat to the economic health of the nation, which needs to be avoided. 

The only good points in the concept note appear to be the government’s commitment to ensuring doorstep delivery of foodgrain to all fair price shops (FPSs), monitoring FPSs and certification of issuance of foodgrain by local vigilance committees, social audit by local bodies, computerisation of operations, effective grievance redressal mechanisms, and the setting up of food security tribunals at the taluka level, and appellate tribunals at the district level.  

The piece de resistance of the concept note lies in the statement: “In case a state/UT government is unable to distribute the entitled monthly quantities of foodgrain to eligible BPL families/individuals, such families/individuals will be entitled for payment of a food security allowance.” With this, the government seemingly wishes to wash its hands of any accountability in the matter of ensuring the right to food to all its citizens.  

Activists see the proposed Food Security Act as a gimmick to win future votes, just as the NREGA was seen as the reason for the substantial mandate given to the UPA in the last elections. The government will be seen to have done something pro-poor even though it will only be a mask behind which it quietly carries on its real agenda of neo-liberal reforms. 

(Kathyayini Chamaraj is a freelance journalist based in Bangalore who has been writing for over 20 years on development issues, especially on unorganised, women and child labour, primary education and urban development for Deccan Herald, The Hindu, the India Together website, etc. She is also Executive Trustee of CIVIC, Bangalore) 

Infochange News & Features, September 2009