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Will the Food Security Act actually help the poor?

Debraj Bhattacharya

Updated: April 1, 2013, 4:45 PM IST
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Frankly, I am nervous. I am not sure whether the Food Security Act is yet another overambitious programme of the Government of India or not. The idea, like many other previous 'inclusive growth' ideas, is a noble one but what is likely to be the result?

What's wrong with rights?

In recent times, over the last decade or so, there has been a series of legislations, giving various kinds of 'rights' to the poor of India. Before the government gave the poor another 'right', would it not be worthwhile to look at what has been the record of these previous 'rights'? The ambitious MGNREGA (originally NREGA) promised 100 days of employment and a right to work as per demand. Last financial year, the average number of days of work provided was 37. What is even worse is that there are very few cases of poor people going to court for not getting work. The idea is simply too distant for people who have to earn their roti every day. Their complaint is that they are not getting their money on time as post offices and banks do not have the capacity to pay them every day or even every month.

Very few durable assets have been created which was a central provision of MGNREGA. Nobody has been penalised for this crucial failure. We also know that the scheme is performing at its worst in the poorest of districts where it is needed the most. Quality of personnel in these districts is poor. Social audits have hardly taken place except in a few states.

Then came the Right to Information. The record here is even worse than right to work. Many RTI activists have been killed and poor people of the villages hardly know what RTI is. It was a lofty idea but hardly made any impact on making the government institutions more transparent and accountable to poor people.

This was followed by the right to education - another grand idea. All children in the age group of 6 to 14 years will be provided free education; pupil-teacher ratio will be improved; schools will be built; new forms of evaluation will be implemented and even elite schools are expected to reserve seats for those from a disadvantaged background. Yet, we find from the ASER Report of Pratham that children are actually learning less after the initiation of RTE! Also my sources have told me that this year, though the budget for Sarva Shikshya Abhiyan has increased, it is still far below the amount that is necessary to effectively implement RTE across the country.

Add to this the list of grand ambitious projects falling flat like the ICDS programme which is not a right but the most important flagship programme for children aged below 5 years. After several decades of the programme, you will still find malnourished children in poor areas and we are far away from the stage where the 'Anganwadi Centre' actually has a structure with a concrete roof. There are plenty of vacant posts which have not been filled.

Challenges of the Food Security Act

There are other examples too but these should suffice. So this is the background in which another gigantic and ambitious programme is to be launched ostensibly aimed at providing subsidised food to 67 per cent of the population of India. There will be Food Commissions in every state (like commissions for women and human rights) that will monitor the implementation. For a summary of the main provisions, click here.

So far so good.

The problem, however, is no matter what the Food Security Bill campaigners say, barring a few states, the PDS system is in a mess. Yes, some states like Chhattisgarh and Tamil Nadu and may be a few more have revitalised the PDS system but in the majority of the states and Union Territories, it is in doldrums. The system is well known for being corrupt and inefficient. Various commentators have already pointed out that there will be a strong incentive for siphoning off food grains and selling them at higher prices in the market. Plus there is the complicated business of linking the whole issue with the AADHAR card, which is a process that is likely to take several years to achieve. The current situation is a bit like a batsman going out to bat in a Test match with a broken bat and hoping to hit sixes.

How the funds perhaps could have been better spent

I am happy that the government is showing its will to spend a large sum of money to improve food security of the poor. However, I would have preferred an alternative route to better food security than another 'right' given to the poor of the country. Let me point of some alternative routes.

1) To begin with, more emphasis should have been given to improve the capacity to implement existing programmes. In some cases this does not require any money at all. All that is needed is to closely inspect the performance of MGNREGS and other poverty alleviation schemes in poor performing districts and create pressure on district officials to improve the performance, fill up vacant posts which are vacant because of administrative laxity, ensure that funds earmarked for training programmes are properly used, etc.

2) With the help of Gram Panchayats/NGOs/ Self Help Groups (SHGs), identify the people at the ward level who are not getting two square meals a day. These are often destitute people who do not have the capacity to go and get food from the ration shops. Encourage Gram Panchayats and municipalities to raise 'own funds' to create community kitchens for them. Let the SHGs look after such identified people and give the SHGs/municipalities/Gram Panchayats awards for their good performance. In extreme cases of hunger, the BDO can intervene by providing GR or Gratuitous Relief, a fund which every BDO has. Preventing a hunger-related death is often not a matter of funds but of compassion and efficiency.

3) Sometimes, food insecurity is caused by other factors which needs attention. For example, the earning member of a household has suddenly died or the house where a family lived has been washed away by flood. Here, the local government has to find solutions to get the family back on track. Subsidised food will not solve the problem. Indira Awas Yojana funds can be utilised for building a house and alternative employment programmes have to be found. Again, if the local government is sincere enough, the insecurities of the vulnerable families can be eliminated. I recently visited a Gram Panchayat in Bardhaman district of West Bengal where the Gram Panchayat has done wonderful work to save TB patients. I met one lady who almost died of TB but is now working in the fields and earning her own money. Kerala has been implementing a programme called ASHRAYA for quite some time now to look after the poorest of the poor and they have done it successfully. It is time to replicate it across the country.

4) In my own state, West Bengal, and elsewhere in the country, farmers are suffering from the rise in fertiliser prices. This is making farming non-viable especially for small farmers. Giving them subsidised food while increasing fertiliser prices will not help.

5) Agricultural credit is still a huge problem in rural India and millions of families are not able to access credit from banks. I would have loved to see funds being spent on taking banks to the poor farmers so that they can get loans at a decent rate rather than having to borrow from money lenders at astronomical rates.

6) A good way of improving the economic situation of poor households would be to reduce their medical costs. This means improving the health system that the government is supposed to deliver.

7) Transforming single-crop, poorly irrigated areas into at least a double crop area also should be a priority. There are funds but they are not utilised properly. More cultivation will generate more work and more income.

In short, I would have loved to see the UPA government improving its existing system to deliver better before coming up with another so-called progressive legislation aimed at 'inclusive growth'.
First Published: April 1, 2013, 4:45 PM IST