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National Food Security Bill: Insecuring Indians

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There would be no better time to ponder over the farce and paradoxes of India’s democratic process and social ‘welfare’ policies than now, with the NFSB (National Food Security Bill) 2011 providing us with just that opportunity. With the NFSB being paraded aggressively in terms of ‘right to food’,

…the nation is once again being tricked into sponsoring another major political gimmick of the Congress party, and above all, the Gandhi family. Since when did Mrs Sonia Gandhi and her elitist band of NAC ‘intellectuals’ assume the authority to so single-handedly decide the course of national policies? In such a bleak scenario, where the NFSB has been so voraciously opposed from diverse quarters and viewpoints (including prominent UPA ministers), what are we expected to make of India’s ‘democratic’ process when the government is so explicitly and undemocratically managed by a handful of powerful elite that it is forced to entirely disregard such widespread popular opposition and bend to the will of select individuals?

The spectacle of unelected powerful political elite high-handedly formulating national policies, according to their particular notions of ‘welfare’, without a shred of consideration for popular demands and views, should act as a wake-up call for the nation. The debacle of the Indian Parliament, countless times in the past, and more recently in case of the fate of the Lokpal bill and the politics surrounding the NFSB, gives us an impression of an oligarchic system skilfully masquerading as a democracy! And this impression is reinforced with conviction when we witness the unfortunate spectacle of an eminent economist P.M powerless to prevent the implementation of an economic monstrosity right under his nose. Or take another equally competent scenario, where our P.M’s respectable credentials of honesty and integrity are no longer sufficient to prevent the implementation of a deception in the name of social ‘welfare’.

So, what kind of a democracy is this, where the government elected by the people becomes tantamount to the hegemony of a particular party, and more than that of a few select individuals? Superficial intellectual analyses and explanations are given for this kind of a phenomenon. These include explanations ranging from the ‘unavoidable compulsions’ of the coalition dharma (where a government has no option but to accommodate the wishes of its powerful coalition partners. Note how undemocratic such a process is, where a government is successfully blackmailed by small, powerful elitist regional parties) to the ‘realistic’ nature of politics in general, including the working of parliamentary democracy. The unfortunate irony is that, for far too long, we have easily accepted such intellectualist technocratic explanations and speculations as natural and foundational, and moved away from substantial truths about what a democracy really should be. It is now time to shake off this stupor and start questioning the natural foundations of our parliamentary democracy.

It is interesting that the NFSB campaign has been revved up under the UPA aegis now ahead of crucial election time, when it was actually promised in its manifesto in 2009. This sudden keenness to fulfil archaic electoral promises may have something to do with the present oncoming elections. It is also interesting to note that such an economically challenging bill should be pushed ahead at a time when the economy is in doldrums, with the government and the RBI rushing to take all possible steps to bring some relief. The opposition to this bill comes from diverse quarters ranging from prominent media and business classes to farmers and ration associations, and also the prominent members of our policy-making classes. Interestingly, the ambitious proposals of this bill have largely evoked scepticism and cynicism from even professed social enthusiasts and activists, because in no way does it sincerely address the issue of food security for the poor. And yet, despite such a contrary environment the government is all set to give a green signal to the disastrous bill. Strange how the compulsions of ‘democratic’ electoral politics often lead to national disasters!

But what exactly is it in the noble objective of food security (as espoused in this bill) that raises the hackles of the nation? Even though no one (least of all public figures) would want to appear averse to the aim of eradicating hunger, yet opposition to this bill from all quarters (including some Congress ministers) is widespread. Obviously, then, there is something very wrong about the current food security bill.

The bill seeks to provide food grain at subsidised rates to more than 60% of the population, covering 75% of the rural households and 50% urban households. Subsidy benefits will vary according to specific categories into which the population would be divided – Priority, General and Excluded, which would respectively be entitled to major benefits, token benefits and nothing. Priority groups will include at least 46% rural population and 28% urban population, and would receive 7kg grain per person. This would be at the rate of Rs. 3/kg for rice, Rs. 2/kg for wheat and Rs. 1/kg for coarse cereals. General category aims, in its final phase, to cover 44% rural households and 22% urban households, and would receive 4kg grain per person, at the rate which would be half the Minimum Support Price (MSP is the price at which the government has to buy the surplus agricultural produce). In addition, free meals would be provided for lactating mothers, children below 14, and the destitute.

It looks like a noble vision in theory and on paper. Even its protagonists have tried to advance strong theoretical arguments in its favour, minuscule though they are. For instance, we are told that with this bill, for the first time, the state’s social objectives have transited from a ‘welfare approach’ to a mandatory ‘rights-based’ one –the right to food. Assurances have also been given about how, through the UID scheme, efforts are underway to improve the PDS system and make the implementation of the bill easier.

However, a close examination of the key ideas of the ostentatious NFSB will show how superfluous it is; for, apart from its numerous implications on different counts, it does not in any way ensure food security or ‘right to food’ either. A rethink is in order. After all, it would not do to build magical castles in the air based on the paraphernalia surrounding food security, unless we can be certain that our collective dreams won’t come crashing to the ground as soon as the elections are over. And NFSB is a dream because we do not possess the wherewithal to realise a project of such exaggerated proportions in such adverse conditions; and even if we do, then our leaky corrupt system won’t allow it.

Let us start with the most commonsensical question. Do our finances allow it? The current food subsidy – these, by the way, are concerns expressed by the Agriculture ministry, so authenticity is not a problem – is approximately at Rs. 67,000 crore. The bill is expected to raise it to approximately 1.2 lakh crore. Those who argue that debasing factors such as ‘cost’ should not be paraded in the face of widespread hunger, as the government can afford it, need to wake up. The government can afford it only if its finances are not distorted by corruption and piling debt. This, at least in the immediate future, appears unlikely, so let us evaluate according to our situation on ground.

Our fiscal deficit is predicted to exceed the limit of 4.6% of the GDP, as the government has not been able to generate sufficient revenue due to the weakening health of our public sectors, myriad subsidies (such as the fuel subsidy, when fuel is becoming dearer) and deteriorating economic conditions in general. Under such conditions, can we afford additional subsidy burden, knowing well enough that it will go down the drain like other government welfare subsidies?

A project of such proportions also demands an overwhelming increase in agricultural production. This cannot be achieved without incentivising our farmers, by increasing the Minimum Support Price. The result is food grains acquired by the government at extremely high cost of procurement and sold off at highly subsidised rates, spelling a fiscal disaster through and through. Food inflation also seems a strong possibility with the bill likely to lead to a dramatic increase in the demand for food grains. Thus, the common man is grilled through and through.

However, for those who regard the economics of the bill, however strong and tangible, an irrelevant consideration in the face of eradicating widespread hunger, let us consider a different fallout. What is the guarantee that the proposed bill will tangibly eradicate hunger? It is quite possible that recipients of subsidiary benefits receiving food grains at a subsidised rate might sell it off in the market at the higher market rate, thereby earning large quantities of profit.

But let us still stick to the paramount social ‘moral’ considerations, and ignore, for a time, the dismal picture presented on the economic front. We are yet faced with numerous other pitfalls. The structural deficiencies of the bill give a clear indication that it is going to turn out like our numerous other ineffective welfare schemes. There are many unaddressed concerns in this area.

The bill only provides for the division of population into broad categories/groups and the entitlements these would receive. But what is the mechanism for identifying how and which beneficiaries would fall into these categories? The bill does not provide any mechanism for this crucial process, without which the claim of a sincere distribution of benefits would appear to be a farce. Closely related to this disadvantage in implementation is the poor shape of our PDS system. The existing Targeted PDS system is afflicted by high intensity of corruption and leakages, which prevents the benefits from reaching the target groups. Several Right to Food activists have argued that the major cause of such high leakages in PDS was due to the system of Targeted and not Universal PDS. The former often ends up excluding the poor and including the non-poor or not sufficiently covering the needy, as the Planning Commission’s criteria for determining BPL (Below Poverty Line) families has been riddled with criticisms and flaws.

No doubt the faults of a Targeted PDS are innumerable in our present inefficient setting. However, neither does Universal PDS fare much better in the long-run. The argument in favour of Universal PDS proceeds, in the first place, from a misplaced conceptual footing. The whole logic behind a Universal PDS presupposes, and is dependent on, a fundamentally flawed PDS framework. Under ideal conditions, a Targeted PDS, if made to work, would be more cost-efficient and accurate. No doubt the ideal conditions seem like a faraway dream. But a Universal PDS doesn’t solve this problem.

It simply implies that instead of making efforts at tackling the problem of inefficiency and corruption in the existing system, we want to take an easy and short-sighted way out by further erecting new burdensome systems. It also shows an easy willingness to dispel a problem by throwing money at it. Even the claims that the system has worked in a few states, where it was implemented (and here the example of Tamil Nadu is proudly cited by the protagonists), is not a good enough reason to implement it on a country-wide scale, with different states having widely different demographics and political culture (imagine drawing a parallel between Tamil Nadu and U.P!). Fortunately, we will not be witnessing the introduction of a Universal PDS anytime soon. The point of this brief debate was to bring home the fact that our PDS is extremely flawed, and expanding it further by adding more cumbersome mechanisms isn’t going to make it our saviour. As expected, the government plans to stick to the existing PDS system, by introducing some reforms in it (such as the Aadhar scheme), apart from proposals of minor alternative schemes.

The Aadhar scheme is being loudly trumpeted as the solution to overhaul and effectualise our lacking PDS. A part of UIDAI (Unique Identification Authority of India) initiative, it is based on a massive biometric exercise, through a purely computerized procedure, to ascertain the genuine identity of an individual, where the authentication basis would be provided by tallying official records with the biological attributes of the individual, such as his iris or his fingerprints. This should ideally avoid duplication and leakages in the distribution of welfare benefits, which should reach the target groups. It is, in fact, reputed to be the world’s largest biometric exercise. However, already there are hurdles facing it. The Home Ministry and the Food ministry are opposed to this scheme and want to continue with the existing framework under NIC (National Informatics Centre). Recently, a patchy deal was struck between the Home Ministry and the UIDAI, which entailed a rough division of population between the UIDAI and the NPR (National Population Register), as demanded by the ministry. This reluctance of the food ministry to cede to the requirements of an independent, computerized agency, and instead stick to the existing system, does not set a very encouraging precedent for the future. After all, even the most sophisticated and computerized system is bound to fail if there is lack of basic political will and transparency among the officials manning it. There are numerous ways (and very real possibilities) of manipulating systems and striking underhand compromises. In this case, there’s a good chance of such a thing happening, as no basic mechanisms have been put in place to ensure accountability of those responsible for distribution. In fact, under this bill, the agency which would handle the complaints and grievances is no different from the one responsible for distribution in the first place. Apart from this, we should also keep at the back of our minds the possibility of technical errors that might genuinely afflict this computerized system.

The fate of Aadhar is yet to be seen. However, the government has sought to allay doubts arising in response to the inefficient PDS, through proposals for food coupons and direct cash transfers. Does this address the most basic concern of providing food security, or is the government simply trying to show that it is doing something at least, and is not completely unconcerned? The latter seems more likely. In a situation of scarcity, what is the guarantee that these provisions would translate into actual food for the needy. Or, even if that is possible, there is no certainty that the target individuals will actually translate the given cash transfers into food.

The government seems to have very poorly worked out the broad theoretical structure of the bill, without any certainty as to its implementation. But if only that were all! We have yet to see the general impact on the people which this bill will have, once operationalized. And the leakage of subsidy benefits for the desired target groups is not the whole issue here. Let us, for a while, also try to ignore the massive loss of the exchequer, the common tax-paying citizen.  

The worrying point for us should be the progressively deteriorating quality of food which the system envisaged by this bill will contribute to. The routine low-quality food supplied under the existing PDS might just reproduce itself on a nation-wide scale. Here’s the logic. The massive framework of the bill (massive according to our capacities) obviously calls for an increased agricultural production, by overhauling the deteriorating agricultural sector. Raising the MSP alone will not do the trick. It will also mean the ruthless increase in the use of harmful chemical fertilizers and pesticides, a threat to health.

Effectively, the NFSB entails an unpleasant scenario – increasing demand for food and poor existing production capacity. This doesn’t just translate into food inflation and fiscal deficit, as has been discussed extensively. That is one part of the problem. In addition, to meet both these challenges will invariably entail a compromise in the quality of food supplied as subsidy, as well as that which would be available in the open market. Ironically, in such a situation of cutthroat scarcity, we should also not forget to take note of the tonnes of surplus food products that routinely rot in storage rooms (thanks to our poor storage capacity, courtesy FCI!). According to a set of statistics, this amounts to approximately 54.7 million tonnes of rice and wheat, and 29.7 million tonnes of grain. This will only increase.

Since we are on the topic of impact of this bill on the people and the poor shape of our agricultural sector, here’s something else to ponder over. The plight of poor farmers, who take to suicide, remains unaddressed. Often only the rich farmers are the beneficiaries of the MSP. Moreover, uneven agricultural production (majority coming from North-West parts of the country) further worsens the plight of farmers in other parts of the country. The bill provides no means to address these problems. It doesn’t even provide for basic price guarantees for poor farmers.

The bill’s weak commitment to providing guarantees is there for us to see in form of the contentious Clause 5.1. It absolves the Central and the state governments of any responsibility of compensation in case of ‘war, flood, drought, fire, cyclone, earthquake or any act of God’. The motives of the government cannot be any plainer, so if something is missing from this list, let us unhesitatingly add that too. For instance, more than half of agriculture in the country depends on monsoon, so if there is delayed monsoon and the resultant loss, we will just have to let it pass away as an ‘act of God’, in front of which our sovereign, secular state is helpless! Contrast this with the populism-driven structure for exaggerated subsidies.

And populism seems to be just the key word here. Because it is under this category that the major concerns regarding the bill seem well-placed. Some of these concerns provide proof regarding the real government motives in campaigning for this bill. It is necessary to know these motives in order to understand that there is a wide difference between populism/electoral-politics driven policies and those which are framed in response to national concerns at hand. The former is necessarily either disastrous or ineffective or both. NFSB –not in the objective of eradicating hunger but in its current form –can be put under this category.

We have, thus, come a full circle from where we started. It is not too difficult to see that the NFSB is, more than anything, a populist electoral gimmick masquerading as food security and social welfarism. There are numerous ways of going about food security, such as the already existing schemes in this field. Why install a nodal, humungous scheme on top of that, despite a very dismal record? And what kind of a social welfarism is this which consists in making large sections of population even more helpless and dependent on the state’s easy subsidies, without any efforts to build their capacities?

Even MGNREGA suffered from this, despite the fact that it sought to create employment. It ended up making the target individuals dependent on easy benefits, instead of developing their skills and contributing to national growth.

The theoretical logic behind the state’s welfare schemes is to address massive inequalities in a capitalist system by propping up the disadvantaged classes, by providing the resources necessary for them to gear up to bridge the unequal gap. It is the populism of opportunistic and limited (undemocratically so) party politics in a democracy that unintentionally and unconcernedly makes lepers out of them.

– Garima Sharma, New Delhi

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