Rakesh Iyer provides a critical take on the UPA government's food policy. He takes issue with the government's decision to restrict food security to BPL families alone in the National Food Security Bill (NFSB).
Looking at the present government, I remember a short yet important incident in the Mahabharata, which happened during the initial days of the war. Bhishma Pitamah was retiring in his tent after a long day of fighting, when Duryodhana stormed inside and accused him of treachery and lack of commitment to fight the Pandavas. Responding to the charge, Bhishma chided Duryodhana, saying: “Vinaash kaale vipreet buddhi”. (When the time of destruction works, our intelligence works in the opposite direction).
A saying pertinent for the current UPA government, as it leads itself and the nation to one disaster after the other. A non-exhaustive list of these would includethe famous 2G scam and the subsequent political-legal fallout; other scams such as Adarsh, CWGand KG-D6; several anti-people policies ranging from the Indo-US Nuclear deal and subsequent repression of people’s struggles against nuclear energy to FDI in Retail, from Operation Greenhunt to AFSPA. To top it all, the government has recently taken the decision to restrict food security to only BPL families under the National Food Security Bill (NFSB).
The NFSB itself was a major compromise compared to the urgency of the situation we face. The HUNGaMA report released by Dr. Manmohan Singh himself in 2011 showed that 42% of children under the age of five in the country were underweight, and 58% of children are stunted by the age of 24 months, i.e. they are too small in height for their age. Our record in providing nutrition to all, specifically children, is totally disgusting, especially when compared to nations across sub-Saharan Africa, where on the whole, child malnutrition for the same age category is at least 14% less compared to India. The PM himself acknowledged this as a matter of shame.
The previous survey on malnutrition was the National Family Health Survey - 3 (NFHS -3), which also showed alarming trends till 2005-06: of all the children under the age of five, 43% were under-weight and 48% were stunted. Also, it was not as if only rural areas suffered from the scourge of malnutrition and stunting. Around 40% of children (under the age of five) were stunted and 33% underweight in urban India. Not to forget, 70% of all children under the age of five were anaemic. All this is even more surprising considering that malnutrition indicators have shown no progress since 1992 (when the first NFHS was conducted).Given that this was a period of explosive growth in India, thanks to policies that were blessed by our current Prime Minister. Surely, that should be enough to convince people that mere growth does not ensure food for hungry children.
When children are ill, can their parents be far behind? The NFHS-3 data assumes a body mass index (BMI) of 18.5 as the line to define thinness or acute undernutrition. As per NFHS-3 data, 36% of women and 34% of men in the age group of 15-49 had a BMI less than 18.5; 55% of women and 24% of men were anaemic, and among ever-married women, the percentage was 56%.
The statistics say it loud and clear: India is an ill and hungry nation, and among the various ways to fight this illness, a major component is food. At the end of it, however much we spend on hospitals, however much we educate our people, if they do not have enough nutrition in their bodies to fight all kinds of chronic ailments and other dangerous health issues like AIDS, if they do not have enough nutrition in their bodies to even use their own labour to earn enough by participating in government schemes like the Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, if they do not have enough nutrition to even survive, then what kind of a nation are we going to be?
All this when the country has record food grain production, overflowing granaries and a government that just doesn’t have enough infrastructure to keep them all. A very similar situation arose in the year 2001, when while granaries were overflowing, vast parts of the country were reeling with drought. Cases came up then regarding the Right to Food in the Supreme Court (SC) itself, which ordered that grains be made available and food-for-work programmes be opened, thus forced to do what governments should have been doing, i.e. ensuring the availability of food to the poor through various schemes such as the Integrated Child Development Scheme, the Mid-Day Meal Scheme and the Antyodaya Anna Yojana. Again, in 2011, the SC was forced to intervene and declare that the grain rotting in public godowns be distributed free or at cheap prices to the poor, instead of being available for rats to gorge upon. It even took to task Sharad Pawar when the latter suggested that it was only a suggestion and not an order. Dr. Manmohan Singh, instead of following the court order, said that policy decisions were not the purview of the SC. He was right. Policy decisions, in the normal course of time, should not be the function of the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court is meant to look at whether laws are in consonance with the spirit of the Indian Constitution. Sadly, they have been forced to intervene, because of the government’s complete neglect of its basic duties under the constitution.
A universal public distribution system (PDS) offers many advantages over a targeted public distribution system. First, a universal system often self-selects beneficiaries, as people like the Ambanis or middle class (like myself) do not take the burden of going to ration shops and standing in queues with poorer people. Second, targeting is a very divisive exercise, and independent surveys show that as many as half of the poor did not get a BPL card. Local-level politics is biased against the poor, and richer sections often conspire to make sure that while the not-so-poor get BPL cards, the poor don’t. Third, targeting encourages corruption, as Ration Cards become a prized possession available only to a few, further driving these cards away from the poor, who have only so much money to pay bribes. Fourth, a universal system also works as a bulwark against inflation, protecting vulnerable households from external shocks such as price increases. This is especially true in current times, when food inflation has made essentials out of reach for even families who are not-so-poor. Fifth, a universal system itself creates a constituency to make sure that it functions. Indeed, this is the experience of Kerala, Tamil Nadu, and more recently Chhattisgarh, where leakages came down thanks to beneficiaries of PDS becoming united once PDS was universalised. The richer sections in a village have more voice, and in a universal system, their voice makes sure that everyone gets grains, while in a targeted system only the rich people get anything. As Professor Amartya Sen once said, services meant only for poor people are very often poor services. Sixth, universal systems have the advantage that entitlements are simple and well-understood by people, something that is the basis of good policy-making in a poor and not-so-literate country like India. Often, poor villagers find it perplexing to understand why their neighbour has a ration card while they don’t. This kind of divisiveness is also the source of much bitterness and violence in several parts of India. Seventh, people move in and out of poverty, but a BPL survey happens only once in several years. What happens if an earning member of a family dies and it suddenly finds that it can no longer ensure even basic survival, or if there is a drought in a particular year, threatening livelihoods of millions in some areas? Eighth, the extent of hunger and malnutrition in the country itself demands such action. Around 80% of the all people get less than the required 2400 calories according to the NSSO, while more than half the kids are malnourished. This, when some schemes exist and work in some states. Without the ICDS, mid-day meals and the PDS, these numbers could have been much more horrific. Finally, creating a division in law between the people of India is unconstitutional, and goes against basic tenets of equality and justice.
A universal food security system will go a long way in ensuring proper nutrition for our citizens, thereby allowing them to perform their daily activities, condition their bodies to effectively fight diseases and thereby lead longer lives while allowing them to contribute more meaningfully to their own lives, families, workplaces and society. And more importantly, such a system will promote the notions of equality and will not lead to a race where people try to out-beat each other in proving how deprived they are how they deserve to be included in the BPL category.
Instead, the UPA has combined bad economics and bad politics. It believes that the bill is about fiscal profligacy and keeps uttering twowords: “fiscal deficit”.
The same UPA government has got enough revenues to forego about Rs. 5.30 lakh crore from the corporate sector under just three heads (Direct Corporate Income Tax, Custom Duties and Excise Duties), all of which are availed of by better-off sections of society. It has got enough revenues to fund projects and give credit to Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Bangladesh and Nepal.It has got enough revenues to allow SEZs in India, giving notwithstanding the fiscal revenue lostin allowing these. It has Rs. 1.5 lakh crore to spend on army, most of which is to be spent on purchasing defence equipments, all of which inevitably end up in some controversy or scam. It even has cash to spend on Montek Singh Ahluwalia's foreign travels.
But when asked to provide food, water, basic sanitation, health, education and employment for all, the government has no money.
Worse, many so-called experts argue that India would have to increase its food production and almost double its so-called food subsidy if food security were to be made universal, all of which are bogus claims. India procures less than 30% of food-grain production, and a universal PDS does not require much more. India does not have to increase its food production for any universal PDS; it has to just maintain its current levels of production, which it has been doing satisfactorily for the past decade, and spend a mere additional Rs. 25,000 crores for ensuring satisfactory distribution for all. That's all. But the government has no cash to spend on making public godowns for ensuring safety of grains, and wants Walmart and other companies to invest in this, as if construction of public godowns is a rocket science patented by Walmart which our government cannot build without Walmart’s permission. Worse, it thinks the UID will come to its rescue, not realizing that most of the times, the issue withtargeted PDS is that of the wrong beneficiary being included in the list, and not that grains were pilfered away by people having many BPL cards.
One may wonder, what has all this got to do with the UPA government's politics? It has. Manmohan Singh, Montek Singh Ahluwalia and many other so-called pro-market ministers and experts do not have to contest elections. At the end of the day, they can make policies and get away with the outcome of what they do. It is the political parties they belong to, which face the music at the time of elections. All the surveys done by CSDS for general elections post 1991 show that irrespective of which government is thrown out or voted to power, the general population of the country is against the reforms unleashed since 1991. While it is true that most people would not be able to understand the reforms in totality since they may not have all the information on it, they do know of their economic situation and how they have done since 1991.
The UPA, when it came to power in 2009, was on a high; the last three years of utter confusion and massive disasters on one issue after other, combined with the performance of Congress in the Uttar Pradesh (UP) assembly elections has effectively put an end to that. The UP Assembly elections have proved that Rahul Gandhi has no charisma to save the UPA in 2014. At a time when a section of the middle class talks of Narendra Modi for PM, the UPA would do well to understand that the media and so-called upper classes are not a section on which one can depend for political support, for they have always been fickle, nor are they politically substantial to influence electoral outcomes. Add to that several anti-people policies and a much better understanding among people of its corrupt nature.
The only way out of this mess for the UPA is to bring a universal Right-to-Food bill having a comprehensive and universal public distribution system. There is no use of trying to be the B-team of Modi in authoritarianism or Hindutva. After all, when people want something, they will take the real version, not the fake one. The way out is to show how different you are from Modi and then let people make the choice for themselves.
Sadly, all this requires three things: a passion to serve the society when in power, knowledge and willingness to understand the realities of people at large and the skill of political judgement to understand what can help you win elections and also be useful for society in times to come. The Manmohan-Ahluwalia combination does not have it, not by any stretch. And at this rate, Sonia Gandhi and her son may also join them for company.