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Universalise the PDS, increase rations

By Praful Bidwai
April 02, 2010 17:06 IST
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The horrifying state of hunger in India adds urgency to the need to implement a new food security law, writes Praful Bidwai.

The announcement that the United Progressive Alliance will reconstitute the National Advisory Council under Sonia Gandhi has not come a day too soon. The original NAC died a premature death primarily because Gandhi quit and also resigned her Lok Sabha seat in the wake of the office-of-profit controversy.

Her long absence from the NAC deprived it of its authority. Now that the law has been amended to exempt the NAC from the scope of offices-of-profit, it's entirely appropriate that the council be formed again to counsel the UPA on fulfilling its promise -- made before the 2004 general elections, and reiterated in 2009 -- to bring about 'inclusive growth' in which the aam aadmi has a vital stake

The UPA needs such advice because it has manifestly failed to deliver inclusive growth. Over the past five years, poverty ratios have remained unacceptably high despite a rapid rise in GDP; 77 percent of India's population survives on under Rs 20 a day. Already obscenely high, income disparities have further widened, with differentials between the bottom and top 10 percent probably reaching the world's worst levels. While the top 10 percent earn First World incomes such as Rs 5 crore a year, the wretched of the earth must make do with Rs 7,000.

Regional and sectoral disparities have grown alarmingly as growth has become skewed. Small-holder agriculture has become unviable, driving 1.99 lakh farmers to suicide between 1997 and 2008. This staggering number is unprecedented in world history. Farmers' suicides are no longer confined to Vidarbha or Andhra, but affect even prosperous parts of Punjab, India's agriculturally most developed state. Over two decades of "free-market" or neo-liberal policies, an additional 100 million people have been driven into poverty. India's Human Development Index rank has slipped from 121 (of 160 countries) in 1991 to an even more miserable 134 (of 182 countries).

The UPA was expected to reverse some of these trends and introduce a semblance of equity. It has palpably failed to do so. In fact, UPA-2, free of the Left's moral and political pressure, has veered rightwards and given tax-breaks to the rich, while doing little to protect the poor against food inflation running at 18 percent. It has also resumed mindless divestment of public sector equity and continued with National Democratic Alliance's pro-corporate policies. It forgets that the NDA was voted out primarily because it failed to deliver equitable growth, and worse, rubbed salt into the wounds of the poor through the 'India Shining' campaign.

The UPA's failures are especially stark in two areas: nutrition and food availability; and secondly, the collapse of the public healthcare system, which is imposing an enormous burden even on the not-so-poor and forcing them to go to quacks or die from denial of medical treatment.

The new NAC must urgently address these two issues, just as its predecessor concentrated on the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act and the Right to Information Act. It must soon extend its attention to other pressing issues like safe drinking water provision, sanitation, shelter, unorganised workers' rights, agrarian infrastructure, universalising and improving the quality of school education, protecting the deteriorating environment, and combating climate change.

The urgency of enacting a Food Security Act in order to improve nutrition levels among the masses arises from the horrifying state of hunger in India. In the Global Hunger Index constructed by the International Food Policy Research Institute, India ranks a low 65 out of 88 nations where hunger is significant.

Despite two decades of rapid GDP growth, India scores worse on hunger than Pakistan and Nepal. In the neighbourhood, only Bangladesh is worse off than India. Even more shamefully, India's performance is worse than that of more than 20 Sub-Saharan African countries, which have experienced economic collapse, civil war, famine and genocides during the past quarter-century.

Not a single of the 17 major Indian states surveyed by IFPRI falls in the 'low' or 'moderate' hunger category. Twelve states fall in the 'alarming' category, and one -- Madhya Pradesh -- in the 'extremely alarming' category. Four states -- Punjab, Haryana, Kerala and Assam -- fall in the 'serious' category. On a global scale, India's best-performing state, Punjab, ranks 34th.

The finding is corroborated by the National Family Health Survey, which shows that 48 percent of all Indian children are undernourished and stunted or wasted. More than half of India's lactating mothers are anaemic. Foodgrains availability has decreased from 200 kg per person a year at the beginning of the 20th century to under 170 kg. As a result, fully 33 percent of Indian adults have a body-mass index (BMI, or weight in kilogrammes divided by the square of height in metres) less than 18.5. (The normal range is between 18.5 and 25. People under 18.5 are malnourished; those above 25 obese.)

In half the districts of India, especially those with a large Dalit or tribal population, the proportion of people with a BMI less than 18.5 exceeds one-half. This qualifies these areas to be declared in a permanent state of famine by World Health Organisation norms.

This famine must be combated on a war footing through an extensive and reliable Public Distribution System for food. The Food Security Act is meant to do just that. Gandhi proposed in June 2009 that it ensure a monthly entitlement of 35 kg of cereals at Rs 3 per kg per household and focus sharply on vulnerable groups like single women, the elderly, the disabled, etc. The UPA referred the original proposal to an Empowered Group of Ministers, which has diluted it beyond recognition. Thus, it redefines food security as something less than nutritional security. It recommends a monthly quota of 25 kg of rice/wheat per poor family without fixing the price, which will be left to the government to announce separately.

This is totally at odds with the recommendations of the Kolkata Group chaired by Professor Amartya Sen which favour recognising the Right to Food and creating adequate entitlements for all. It also falls way below the recommendations of a committee appointed by the Supreme Court, chaired by Justice D P Wadhwa, for 35 kg of grains for all those who earn less than Rs 100 a day. If the Wadhwa Committee's report is adopted, the number of families treated as Below Poverty Line would rise to 200 million, in place of the 105 million estimated by the state governments and the 92.5 million families estimated by the Tendulkar Committee.

The EGoM's draft is minimalist, reneges on the promise of nutritional security, and perpetuates today's collapsing PDS which supposedly targets BPL families. Estimates of the families' number vary from 28 to 50 percent of the population. The figures are unreliable because they use convoluted methods of scoring families according to different indices like land ownership, occupation and education. The far more reliable National Sample Survey's 61st round (2004-05) found that one-half of the poorest households don't possess a BPL card. Such exclusion is compounded by the illegitimate inclusion of many non-poor people who wield influence and want to corner PDS grain.

There's a radical solution to the BPL problem: universalise the PDS and not target it at the poor, because targeting is always fraught with exclusion and corruption. This would only be in keeping with treating the Right to Food as a fundamental right of all citizens, being part of the Right to Life under Article 21 of the Constitution. Besides being arbitrary and exclusionary, targeting is divisive and creates competition among the poor rather than generate pressure for a well-performing PDS for all. This is borne out by the far superior experience with the PDS in Tamil Nadu, where it is universal.

A universal PDS will naturally raise the food subsidy bill. The most generous estimate, based on the Wadhwa report, is that an additional Rs 82,000 crore would be needed over and above the amount (Rs 35,800 crore) currently allotted to the targeted PDS. This may look large but is puny in relation to the revenue forgone by the government through subsidies and tax-breaks for the rich, totalling Rs 540,268 crore in the current year. It is also just about one-half of India's military spending. Surely, India can afford to make its poor be minimally food-secure by limiting its ballooning expenditure on the war machine, which has tripled in dollar terms since the 1998 nuclear tests.

The UPA must not proceed with the EGoM-recommended Food (In)Security Act. The NAC should radically revise it along the lines suggested above while universalising the PDS. There is no other way the poor, who are excluded from the food market by high prices, can receive adequate and safe nutrition and thus develop their minimal potential as human beings.

The state owes this to its underprivileged citizens, who are victims of structural, deep-rooted poverty and of entrenched inequalities for which they are not even remotely responsible. The Indian state has failed its poor for 60 years. It's time it redeemed its promises just when its revenues are almost three times higher than six years ago.

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Praful Bidwai