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Mainstream, Vol. XLVII, No 27, June 20, 2009

From Employment Guarantee to National Food Security

Monday 22 June 2009, by Sitaram Kumbhar


The President of India Pratibha Patel, in her first address to the joint session of Parliament after 15th Lok Sabha election, said that the UPA Government would pass a legislation called the “National Food Security Act” (NFSA) which would entitle, by law, to every family below the the poverty line in rural as well as urban areas to 25 kg of rice or wheat a month at Rs 3 a kg. This is something historic. The NFSA will guarantee that cheap foodgrain is made available to those who can claim it. It is a good idea that after an assured income for the rural poor through the NREGA, the government is planning to implement the NFSA because now the poor would have money to procure foodgrains. The steps taken in recent years to alleviate poverty should have come in the 1950s itself though the government had fiscal commitments to different sectors immediately after India’s political independence in 1947. India would have reduced poverty long back provided the growth-mediated strategy to reduce poverty, which did not fit into the Indian conditions, was replaced by strategies of direct attack on rural poverty.

Nevertheless, high growth can lead to higher allocation for the social sector provided the government has the political will. The East Asian countries could reduce poverty permanently through a growth-mediated approach; they could do so because these countries had already overcome many of the social inequalities before adopting the market-mediated approach. The Government of India has started doing things now which many of these countries had done long back. However, it is always difficult to introduce radical change in democracies because in such countries building consensus on some of the national issues becomes difficult. It is difficult to discount the Opposition which is the basic tenet of democracy. Land reform in India is one such example. In authoritarian regimes radical change is possible because they do not have to build consensus, if there are differences, and can easily overcome any opposition unlike what a democratic regime can do.

Food security is central to any fight against rural poverty in India. The government has started understanding the fact that hunger and starvation deaths are not due to low per capita food production of a particular region. It is often due to the deficit of capability to get access to food. We can take the example of the “Kalahandi” district (Orissa), one of the poorest districts in India where starvation is somewhat common. It is a matter of surprise that the Kalahandi district is a food surplus district. It produces highest per capita food and its food productivity is better than the national average of per capita food production. It exports foodgrains to nearby districts. Now the question is: Can we consider low productivity of foodgrains the only reason of poverty? The planners had thought it to be the main reason of poverty in India. Thus, higher agricultural productivity is necessary but not
a sufficient condition to avert any kind of food

No doubt, India needs higher food production to ward off any unforeseen food crisis in the country, particularly due to natural calamities and drought. If food production keeps pace with the population growth, India’s dependency on the foreign countries for foodgrains can be overcome. It should be kept in mind that a large number the children, old and sick, women and poor people are malnourished due lack of access to nutritious food. The state of malnourished children needs special attention of the government. Many people in rural India go to bed without food though a huge quantity of foodgrains is rotting in the Food Corporation of India’s (FCI) godown due to lack of proper management.

In the last five years India has witnessed two historic legislations, the Right to Information (RTI) Act and National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, which have enormous potential to revivify India and rural India in particular. The “National Food Security Act” is likely to be an addition to the ongoing engagement of the government with the rural poor.

In fact, the Congress Party in its manifesto pledged to “enact a Right to Food Law that guarantees access to sufficient food for all the people, particularly the most vulnerable sectors of the society”. The President, in her speech to the joint session of Parliament, said that it would be the priority of the government to immediately convert right to food into a law. The government need not make a law in haste. It needs to work with the civil society organisations and other activists who have familiarity with the functioning of the public works at the grassroots level. It should put in place legal safeguards to ward off any corruption and pilferage of foodgrains meant for the poor. However, what needs to be seen is that whether the likely legislation would be a mere modification of the existing Public Distribution System (PDS). It seems that the Right to Food will be similar to the PDS which is in operation ever since the 1960s. The PDS is not free from large scale corruption. The Congress party’s election manifesto further stated that “every family below the poverty line either in rural or urban areas will be entitled by law to 25 kg of rice or wheat per month at Rs 3 per kg”. A similar provision already exists in the PDS though it is limited to a small segment of the population. Therefore, it can take the opportunity to learn from the PDS’ failures before implementing the NFSA.

With the passing of many anti-poverty legislations it seems likely that the government will try to temper the struggles of civil society organisations and tribals for land reforms. These legislations should not divert the people’s attention from land reform. Thousands of landless tribals and displaced farmers walked to New Delhi from Gwalior demanding land reforms which forced the Government to constitute a “Committee on State Agrarian Relations and the Unfinished Task in Land Reforms” with experts drawn from related specialisations and fields. (The Hindustan Times, October 30, 2007) They had to walk 340 km to register their protest in Delhi. The recommendation of the committee would be put up to the “National Land Reform Council”, headed by the Prime Minister. One of the main demands of the participants of “Janadesh 2007” was the setting up of National Land Authority to look into land and livelihood disputes. It was also to look into issues related to ceiling on landholdings, distribution of land to the eligible persons, including the landless.

In recent years land reforms have been badly neglected in India. This is unfortunate as land reform has a very important role to play in poverty alleviation, increasing productivity and bringing peace and justice to India’s villages. Providing a secure land base to landless and near landless peasants is of the greatest significance to provide them food security and to reduce their poverty. Land reforms help in farm productivity, protect land fertility, sustainable use of land and wasteland development as first generation farmers are more likely to work for soil and water conservation. The United Nations Food and Agricultural Organisation (UNFAO) report Agriculture Towards 2000, in the specific context of India, said: “Redistribution of only five per cent of farm land in India, coupled with improved access to water could reduce rural poverty levels by 30 per cent under what they would be, so that in Indian conditions land and water reform would be a key approach.” Even the World Bank also supports this view that greater equality in land distribution helps in increasing productivity. The UNFAO, in one of its recent reports, says: “Food prices remained high in many developing countries and access to food by the poor continued to be threatened by loss of employment, income and other effects of the global economic crisis.” The NFSA will be helpful for the poor during this economic slump. The Tenth Plan document agrees that land distribution to poor landless peasants is important. As the document says, “ownership of even a small plot of land enables a family to raise its income, improve its nutritional status, have access to credit facilities and lead a more dignified life”. Agricultural labourers, therefore, need to be provided access to land to improve their economic and social well-being.

Another important point is: what would be the attitude of the government towards the “capability enhancing policies” which are crucial for alleviating poverty permanently. The government needs to focus on the capability enhancing policies which will go a long way in reducing the perennial dependency of the people for basic necessities by enabling them to take personal initiative themselves. This will gradually help people to move above the poverty line. Underestimation of capability enhancing policies is the main reason why the government policies have failed to reduce poverty significantly. Poverty is a relative concept. It is also a process. It is a process because while a group of people move above the poverty line as a result of the government’s policy interventions, simultaneously another group of people falls below the poverty line. Therefore, it needs different policy interventions to address the problems of different categories of poor. For example, the people on the verge of the officially drawn line.

The PDS and National Food Security Act

The President of India, Pratibha Patel, in her address to the joint session of Parliament talked about the NFSA. But the government can learn from the history of perennial failures in the PDS, before implementing the NFSA. The poor need an efficient ration system. A well-functioning PDS is critical to maintaining the price stability of food articles. There are demands from many quarters in favour of restructuring the PDS. India needs the PDS for the poor, but unless it is efficient, procures adequate quantities of foodgrains and delivers food to the poor, it could become an albatross and an opportunity for the rent seekers to enrich themselves. Some of the studies have found that the government spends Rs 3.65 to transfer Rs 1 to the poor. About 58 per cent of the subsidised grain does not reach the target group, of which a little over 36 per cent is siphoned off the supply chain.

In 2008, the PDS was in the news that it could be in for a major overhaul with the Supreme Court accepting the Justice Wadhwa Committee report, which had recommended abolition of the above poverty line (ALP) category and a revision of the BPL category to include a larger percentage of population besides door-to-door survey to weed out ghost cards. The Apex Court gave an in-principle nod to the Wadhwa Committee report which had suggested the upper income limit to hold a BPL card be more then doubled from Rs 24,000 to Rs 49,284.

The welfare gains of the PDS in terms of income transfer are very meagre and the impact on poverty and nutritional status minimal. Even the meagre transfer benefits were realised at an exorbitant cost. There are gross misappropriations of resources devoted to it for distribution through the PDS. In 2007, the National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO) had pointed to the distortions in the system. Steps need to be taken to ensure that the foodgrains supplied are reaching the needy. The foodgrains made available to the State governments are diverted in a big way. Only a fraction of BPL families are availing food from the fair price shop. The huge diversion of foodgrains needs course correction. The NSSO report points out major lacunae in targeting social assistance through BPL ration cards in the rural areas. For instance, in the North-Eastern States, except Arunachal Pradesh and Tripura, 100 per cent of wheat is diverted. (The Times of India, September 17, 2007)

The NSSO (2007) suggested that as against a desired 100 per cent coverage, only 41 per cent of the households, placed at the bottom of monthly per capita expenditure (MPCE) list of rural households, possessed ration cards meant for BPL families. While, in contrast, about 11 per cent of the totally undeserving households, falling in the top five per cent of the rural household, hold ration cards meant for BPL families. Some of the studies suggest that about two-fifths of the BPL cards in India are with the non-poor households. In many States a majority of households in abject deprived groups do not possess a BPL card. The misuse of the BPL card is higher in many States. In economically weaker States like Orissa, a higher proportion of non-poor households possess a BPL card. The PDS in its present form has evolved in the wake of critical, national-level food shortage in the 1960s. The scheme has probably contributed to a containment of upward pressures of food prices and ensured access of food to the consumers. Of all the safety nets that were in operation in India, the most far-reaching in terms of coverage as well as public expenditure (on subsidy) is the PDS prior to the implementation of the NREGA.

Therefore, the PDS is no less radical than the NREGA in which highly subsidised rice is provided to people at rupees two per kilogram. The nexus between the politicians and unscrupulous bureaucrats is systematically siphoning off the food items meant for the PDS. The NHRC representatives had discovered the ration cards scandal with over 90,000 fake ration cards in operation in Nawarangpur district, of which Orissa Government had to cancel 76,164 ration cards in 2002. Mortgaging of ration cards was a strange discovery. The State elites should not get away with non-implementation or corruption because of “political weakness of the intended beneficiaries—the poor—as an organised interest group”.

Poverty and Welfare Schemes

India is not famous for its democracy alone; it is also famous as the second largest populous country with huge segment of its population under the trap of abject poverty. It is a matter of fact that anti-poverty measures in India have achieved nothing substantial to uplift a major segment of the population from the poverty trap. The Government of India has adopted many democratic poverty alleviation strategies and mechanisms with the pumping of huge financial resources. The democratic intervention in the form of redistribution and direct attack on poverty is very old. However, it is a matter of regret that chronic poverty continues to hound major segments of the rural populace in India. India is on the 94th position, as per the Global Hunger Index, out of 118 countries. All the South Asian countries have done well in poverty alleviation. India occupies the 132nd position among 179 countries in the UNDP’s 2009 Human Development Index. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (UNFAO), in one of its reports in 2006, had expressed despondency over the discovery of the fact that India had contributed a majority to the pool of malnourished mass of the world. It is a matter of concern that the incidence of poverty in some of the backward
regions and among some specific sections of people is very high.

It is also a fact that faster economic growth has not trickled down to reduce poverty. Therefore, it is imperative to find a path to reduce poverty faster at this juncture because the growth-mediated approach to reduce poverty like the East Asian countries might not be pertinent to the Indian case. It is historic to achieve faster economic growth through democratic means and orderly rule. It is a success of Indian democracy that it has improved its mechanism to raise resources through different sources including taxation which will help India to support its deteriorating public sector, especially health, PDS, primary education etc. It is true that all sections of the Indian society are not benefiting equally from the wealth created by the reform processes in the country. India is facing manifold challenges to rapidly reduce poverty in a sustained manner and to bridge the widening gap between the rich and the poor.

India has had a slow record in reducing poverty in the last decade. This needs self-introspection on the part of the agencies which are engaged in and committed to uplifting the poor from the trap of abject poverty. The difficulties the Government of India faced immediately after the nation’s political independence in 1947 was the paucity of funds to implement different capability enhancing policies and lack of adequate food to feed the growing population. This got aggravated due to manifold internal and external exigencies. Now the situation is quite different. There is no paucity of funds and foodstocks to implement anti-poverty programmes and feed the hungry population. The former is true because the funds meant for implementing one of the radical anti-poverty schemes, the NREGS, instituted by the government, is not being implemented with vigour and dynamism by some of the State governments.

The crux of the problem today is non-implementation. The grassroots experience in the implementation of anti-poverty programmes suggests that it needs pro-people mechanism with transparency and accountability because the people are passive recipient of such schemes. There is a need to increase the capacity of the Indian Government agencies and bureaucracy to implement funds meant for the poor. The planners and policy-makers need to grapple with the difficulties associated with the implementing agencies. Once the problem of implementation is solved the problem of poverty will be very well tackled. This is imperative because the funds meant for the poor are not reaching them often questioning the relevance of many of the anti-poverty schemes. The equalising policies of the Government of India have failed to achieve the desired expectations.

The poverty alleviation schemes have not reduced poverty significantly due to the non-implementation and siphoning off of funds. Paucity of funds is not a problem to alleviate poverty. Today the problem is due to the incapacity of the policy-makers to overcome the challenges of reaching to the poor. The implementing agencies have surplus resources but do not know how to spend these so as to help the poor. There is no regular monitoring of such schemes to curb siphoning off of the funds.

Therefore, it is imperative that the concerned authorities improve the implementation mechanism to reduce poverty and put the equalising policies on the right path to empower the powerless. The NFSA will fail unless the implementation mechanism is improved, made pro-poor and vigorous. To realise the very purpose of the NFSA the implementing agencies need to reform themselves, otherwise this radical legislation for food security will face the same fate like many other schemes and fail to fulfil the purpose for which they are conceived.

The author is an Assistant Professor, Department of Political Science, Shyamlal College, University of Delhi.

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