The NAC proposals for the food security bill are narrow and lack in vision. What is needed is a comprehensive bill with universalisation of PDS and a focus on child malnutrition.
There was much excitement when food security became one of the issues in the manifestos of most major political parties in the run up to the 2009 General Elections. With burgeoning food stocks, double-digit food inflation, stagnant malnutrition rates, declining calorie consumption and high levels of anaemia, radical interventions are required to help the situation of hunger and poverty in the country. The promise of a Food Security Bill by the ruling alliance provided an opportunity to introduce and expand essential programmes towards ensuring food security for all. However, in the months that followed what we have seen is only short-sighted proposals that refuse to address the core issues. Until now there have been proposals from the Ministry and the Empowered Group of Ministers (EGoM); as well as the National Advisory Council (NAC).
A universal PDS
The draft of the EGoM was very minimalistic with its focus only on the Targeted Public Distribution System (TPDS). The debates in the media have also largely been restricted to discussions around the PDS. Even with regard to the PDS, it is seen that the government is restricted to thinking within the framework of dividing the population into APL and BPL. The initial draft of the government guaranteed no entitlements for those above the poverty line. This was completely unacceptable as data has shown that there are large-scale exclusion errors in the targeted system with the deserving poor being left out of the PDS net. While this is a problem of identification, it is also a result of artificial ‘caps’ set on the basis of Planning Commission’s poverty estimates. It is has been widely argued that the current poverty line is more of a destitution line and does not appropriately reflect the extent of poverty in the country. Alternate estimates ranging from 37% (Tendulkar committee) to 77% (NCEUS report’s estimate of number of persons living below an MPCE of Rs. 20 per day) have been provided. The Tendulkar committee recommendations have also been accepted and foodgrain allocations will now be based on these estimates.
However, this does not yet resolve all the problems with targeting. Identification of the poor still remains a problem. So does the vulnerability of the huge proportion of people who are living at the margins, just above the poverty line. In the Indian context of very low incomes, widespread poverty and food insecurity, universalisation is required for the PDS can make a dent on people’s lives. Even the NAC in its initial recommendations stated that “time-bound universalisation of foodgrain entitlements across the country may be desirable...”. However, even the NAC in its final recommendations moves away from this vision, while proposing to divide the population into three groups – ‘priority’ (based on Tendulkar committee’s estimates); ‘general’ and the ‘excluded’ (top 10% in rural areas and top 50% in urban areas).
The NAC recommendations are indeed a step ahead of what exists today and what has been previously proposed for the Bill by the food ministry and the EGoM. Firstly, the coverage of those in the ‘priority’ group is larger than the current “BPL” allocations of Government of India. Based on Tendulkar estimates (plus accounting for 10% transient poor) the NAC proposes to include 46% of rural population and 28% of urban population to get an entitlement of 35kgs (7kgs per head) per month at Rs.3 per kg for rice, Rs. 2 per kg for wheat and Rs. 1 per kg for millets. This would result in about 9.8 crore households being included under this category. Further, the prices which are being proposed are lower than the current prices for the BPL category. Finally, those in the ‘general’ category are guaranteed 20kgs per month as an entitlement at prices which are not more than 50% of the MSP (which is close to current APL prices). Presently, there is no guarantee for APL families, with what they get being different in different states. The recent Government of India policy of curtailing APL allocations based on previous offtakes (in spite of rising prices) has resulted in APL households getting almost nothing in many states.
However, the NAC recommendations are still disappointing because while they do move one step forward they have missed the opportunity of providing a radical vision for the food security programmes in the country. The central problem of identification of poor households remains. In fact, it is not clear what the formulation in the Bill will be – what will happen when the Planning Commission revises poverty figures periodically, based on new NSS data – will the ‘priority’ group also shrink accordingly? An Act is surely not required to just expand coverage to a larger population, while not questioning the very basis of such targeting. Having a targeted PDS in legislation will make it even more difficult to fight the division of the population into categories of those below the poverty line and those above (even though the groups have been called ‘general’ and ‘priority’ the idea essentially remains the same).
From newspaper reports it seems as if the NAC’s primary concerns were of unavailability of foodgrains and resources required for a universal PDS. A rough estimate of the quantum of foodgrains required (assuming 80% offtake) shows that about 80 million tonnes are needed for universalisation of the PDS. The current procurement by FCI is about 60 million tonnes, and procurement has been increasing over the years. What is currently procured is only about 30% of production. Further, there is no reason to assume that agriculture production will remain stagnant. This is precisely the reason why the Right to Food campaign has been arguing that while discussing the food security bill, issues related to production, procurement and distribution must be simultaneously dealt with. The food security bill can in fact be seen as an opportunity for the much needed reforms and investment in agriculture to take off.
As far as budgetary requirements are concerned, the various estimates show that it would cost about Rs. 1.2 lakh crores for a universal PDS. Again, while this is indeed a large amount, it is something the country can afford to invest considering that each year about Rs. 5 lakh crores are given away as tax exemptions, mainly benefiting corporations. Further, with other reforms in the PDS such as decentralised procurement and storage, the economic cost of foodgrains can also be expected to fall resulting in lower subsidies. It would be better to work
around food and resource constraints by not compromising on the principle of universalisation but by phasing the process over a few years.
Further, while universalisation of PDS would be the core, what is required is a comprehensive food security bill which also guarantees entitlements for vulnerable groups such as children, women, the aged and disabled.
Child Malnutrition cannot be neglected
It is well accepted that interventions to address malnutrition must lay special focus on children, especially children under two years of age. Much of the malnutrition that sets in during early childhood is irreversible. It is shameful that India has one of the highest rates of child undernutrition in the world. In fact it is high levels of child malnutrition that puts India at the bottom of the list in measures like the Global Hunger Index. Although we have one of the largest child development programmes in the world, in the form of the ICDS, this has been able to make very little impact on malnutrition rates. ICDS from its inception has been an under-funded and ignored programme although its objectives were highly commendable. With ICDS as the base, higher investments and reforms in design can contribute significantly to improving nutrition status of children in the country.
Reducing child malnutrition requires a range of services including maternity entitlements, crèches, breastfeeding support, supplementary nutrition and counselling towards appropriate infant and young child feeding practices. This would at the very least require universalisation with quality of the ICDS, introduction of universal and unconditional maternity entitlements and diverse and flexible models of child care based on the need of working mothers. Given the widespread nature of malnutrition in the country, it is imperative that all these programmes are designed for universal coverage. It has been estimated that all of this put together would cost about Rs. 50,000 crores per year or about 0.8% of GDP.
With such unacceptably high levels of child malnutrition there need be no further explanations to justify such expenditure. However, for those who are still sceptical, there are also compelling economic reasons to invest whatever is required for eradicating malnutrition. Reducing child malnutrition not only contributes to higher productivity and therefore economic growth in the future through healthier populations but also leads to savings of health care costs that arise from malnutrition and future health benefits. While it is difficult to put a number to the benefits of appropriate child growth and development, some estimates indicate that the losses to GDP from various components of undernutrition can be as high as 3 percent of national income.
While the initial drafts of the Government of India did not mention child malnutrition at all, the NAC’s note does specify that maternal and child nutrition entitlements will be included in the Food Security Bill. However, it is not clear whether these will be in their current form or whether the comprehensive interventions that are required will be brought in. It would be quite a pity if this opportunity is wasted by introducing piece-meal and stingy programmes.
Towards Food Security for All
It is time that sustained efforts were made to ensure food security for all. The food security bill provides a historic opportunity to initiate this process. This must not be lost by a narrow vision, instead we must put in place a comprehensive law that ensures that every resident of this country is well nourished. For this, the least that is required is a universal PDS, adequate child and maternal entitlements and special programmes for the vulnerable such as the homeless, aged, single women, disabled etc along with efforts towards revitalising agriculture and protecting small and marginal farmers. While it seems like we are moving further and further away from such a vision, the civil society and the media must continue to put pressure on the government to ensure that not all is lost.
 The GHI report is available at http://www.ifpri.org/publication/2010-global-hunger-index and India’s in the GHI 2010 is in the ‘alarming’ category ranking 67 out of 84 countries
 For further details see the FOCUS report (2006) available at www.righttofoodindia.org and Working Group for Children Under Six (2007) , Strategies for Children under Six in the 11th plan, Economic and Political Weekly
 35,000 for ICDS including second worker, better SNP, infrastructure, anganwadi-cum-crèches etc. and 12,000 for maternity entitlements
 For e.g. see Lawrence Haddad, “Nutrition and Poverty” In Nutrition: A Foundation for Development, Geneva: ACC/SCN, 2002 and references in Veena S Rao, “Economics of Malnutrition: Combating malnutrition in the Inter-generational Context”, available at www.britannia.co.in/bnf/media/veena-rao.ppt accessed in Nov 2010