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Food Security Bill: Boon or Bane?

Food Security Bill: Boon or Bane?
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Opinion is divided on the need and desirability of a food security ordinance. While some say that introduction of food security through an ordinance...

Opinion is divided on the need and desirability of a food security ordinance. While some say that introduction of food security through an ordinance is a political gimmick to bag votes, others argue that the mode of providing food security, whether through ordinance or a Bill in parliament, is not important to the extent that the measure seeks to feed 67 % of population after 65 years of independence and, therefore, debate on it is nitpicking.
What it doesn't talk about Being hungry is a way of life with a lot of people Dr. P Madhavi The Food Security Bill has raised a lot of expectations. When the UPA government started talking about it, we all thought for the first time somebody is going to talk about hunger and the hungry in the country. The Bill, sadly, does not do that. Addressing hunger requires understanding of the nature of hunger. It means ensuring that all people in the country at all times have command over resources needed to acquire food. Hunger is more than lack of availability of food. It is a complex problem of deficiencies in food entitlements and deprivation in related essential services, including health care, education, safe drinking water, adequate nutrition. Although a single piece of legislation cannot address all these issues, it is imperative that a comprehensive plan must be made to ensure all this, without which the food security Act will not only fail to provide any security but will also be reduced to a system of PDS. More than three-fourths of the hungry in the world live in rural areas of Africa and Asia, although hunger is by no means confined to rural areas. There is a growing incidence of urban hunger. With the policies of the government depriving villagers of their lands, rapid, indiscriminate and mindless mining going on, rural-urban migration is taking place at an unprecedented rate. Being hungry is a way of life for a lot of people. They may not die of starvation but they live sub-normal lives. The Food Security Bill needs to address these people. It may be difficult to identify them with the present survey methods and structures. Our BPL surveys have failed to capture the real numbers of those who are hungry. Hunger is open and hidden too. Those who are not starving may suffer from "hidden hunger' which is malnutrition. The acknowledged figure of under-nourished children in the country is 46%. If one adds the unacknowledged numbers one cannot even imagine what the numbers could be. What we need is not just an Act which, for all we know, suffers from poor implementation, as so many other laws have done in our country, but, a war against hunger and malnutrition being declared. We need a universal system of subsidized food which is locally available, culturally accepted and meets with the nutritional requirements of the people. (The writer is Advisor to Food Commissioners, A P)
It will take care of TPDS lapses
The State has a role in terms of helping the poor and vulnerable groups in times of insecurity and in terms of ensuring minimum levels of provision to those unable to gain from the growth process G Sridevi India has many social protection programmes. However, food insecurity and malnutrition continue to be high. The Ministry for Women and Child Development has reported that one in two children is malnourished. The problem is with both design and implementation of the programmes. The bottom 5 percent of the population had an average monthly per capita expenditure of Rs.521.44 in rural areas and Rs.700.50 in urban areas. The average monthly spending on all-India basis is around Rs.1, 430 for rural India and around Rs.2, 630 for urban India. Food accounted for 52.9 percent of the value of the household consumption that included 10.8 percent on cereals and cereal substitutes in rural India, and in unban India food accounted for 42.6 percent of the value of total consumption, which includes 6.7 percent on cereals and cereal substitutes, according to National Sample Survey data for 2011-12. Comprehensive social protection programmes are required to address the problems of access to food and malnutrition. The State has a role in terms of helping the poor and vulnerable groups in times of insecurity and in terms of ensuring minimum levels of provision to those unable to gain from the growth process. The National Food Security Bill (NFSB), which was cleared via an ordinance on July 4, is one such social protection program and it's assumed to benefit 67 percent of India's population. Under FBS, it is proposed that food grains will be provided to priority households at subsidized rates. Beneficiaries will be given 5kg food grains (rice of 3kg, wheat of 2kg and coarse grains of 1kg) each per month. However, there is a ceiling of 35kg food grains per month. Also, a free "cooked" meal will be provided to pregnant women and lactating mother for 6 months through local anganwadi. Unemployed women will have maternity benefit of Rs.6000 in installments. The child up to 14 years will be provided free food through mid-day meal program in school. Economists in the country say the Food Security ordinance throws up major operational and financial challenges that would have greater impact on Indian agriculture. Major reforms are needed in agriculture for improving availability of cereals and non-cereal food: (i) Increase in investment in agriculture (ii) Land and water management (iii) controlling price fluctuations (iv) providing institutional credit, and (v) implementation of land reforms. By implementing these reforms, food production can be raised. In addition to the availability, the FSB has large subsidy implications; some estimates say to implement the Act in a sustainable and reliable manner, it can cost Rs 200, 000 crore a year, factoring in investment for stabilizing production, creating infrastructure for storage and upgrading PDS. Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) recommends 14kg food grains for adult and 7kg for a child. On the contrary, this Bill reduces it to 5kg. Will this not be low intake? Does the 5kg benefit address the issue of malnutrition? There is also no clarity on who should be covered. The PDS, with its network of fair price shops, is the most obvious choice for distribution of the entitled food grains under NFBS. However, the present TPDS (Targeted Public Distribution) suffers with high exclusion errors. In 2000, the BPL projections were taken as per 1991 census: which means 370 million should be eligible but 11 million were left out, according to 2011 census: 436 million people should be eligible but 75 million were excluded. The main problem with regard to TPDS is its inability to reach the target groups in most parts of the country. There was marked regional disparity, and although the impact of TPDS on southern and north-eastern States is much better, it has hardly any impact on some of the poor States like Bihar and UP. Another important problem in TPDS is leakages; the leakages vary enormously between States. In Bihar and Punjab, the total leakage exceeds 75 percent while in Haryana and Uttar Pradesh it is between 50 and 70 percent. Fixing the leaky PDS and providing the required infrastructure for storage and movement is a big challenge. There has been a serious debate on the question: Should the PDS be targeted or universal? The advantage of universal PDS is that targeting errors can be minimized, particularly the exclusion of poor. Also, a right generally implies applicability to the entire population of the nation. As identification of poor always leads to exclusion of poor and inclusion of non-poor, NFSB should focus on 100 percent coverage in a way making distribution system universal, distributing cereals, millets, pulses and oil that covers the whole population. The quantity should be decided on the basis of Indian Council of Medical Research norms per adult consumption, and thus include 14 Kg cereals, 800gm oil and 1.5 Kg pulses per head (half for children). Social mobilization, community participation and decentralized approach are necessary in this context. (The writer is Professor, Department of Economics, University of Hyderabad)
Legislation is overdue
Unless the quality of the food supplied is subject to monitoring, the primary purpose of the Act will not be fulfilled Eas Sarma Right to nutritious food is guaranteed by the Constitution. Therefore, the concept of legislation on it is welcome in principle; also, it is long overdue. Research surveys conducted have shown that the efficacy of the PDS has varied from State to State; and that in States where PDS is well implemented the beneficiaries expressed their preference for food grains in kind, not cash transfers, as the former insulated them from price fluctuations, and dealing with banking institutions has not been quite convenient. As such, cash transfers should not be imposed on beneficiaries and States. While the law is well-intentioned, its implementation will depend critically on accurate identification of beneficiaries, efficient storage and transportation facilities and the overall logistics. If sufficient attention is not paid to this aspect, it will hurt the interests of the beneficiaries and render the system cost-intensive. The preamble to the Act says that its purpose is to ensure guaranteed access to adequate nutritious food. Since the food habits of people vary across States and regions, it is necessary to allow flexibility in the implementation of the Act to adapt it to the local communities' needs. Unless the quality of the food supplied is subject to monitoring and there are frequent health checks to assess the nourishment levels of the beneficiaries, the primary purpose of the Act will not be fulfilled. Finally, the fiscal health of the States varies across States and it decides their ability to implement the Act properly. If any State curtails its implementation for want of budgetary provisions, it will defeat the concept of the constitutional guarantee that is at the core of this law. It may be a good idea for the Centre to take over the full burden which will be far less than the tax exemptions that it gives to corporate entities and the price benefits it doles out to influential private companies from time to time. (The writer is a retired IAS officer)
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