Tag Archives: Food Corporation of India

Grim Politics of Hunger- Food Security in India, Part – 2

Nemmani Sreedhar

Chennai: In my previous post on the same topic, I provided a brief background for the ongoing debate. National Advisory Committee’s (NAC) proposals for the

A food grains vendor in Hyderabad

Food Security Bill, envisaged supply of 35 kg of food grains at subsidised prices for 75 per cent of the population (nearly 800 million people) and 20 kg for the remaining 25 per cent of the population. But the draft bill that was cleared by Empowered Group of Ministers (eGoM) for cabinet consideration led to serious debate. The problem was solved by a compromise between the NAC and government. Government retained some of the proposals by NAC, and NAC in its turn, owing largely to drop in food grain production, accepted pruned draft bill. With this India is set to become the first country in the world to enact legislation that gives a guarantee of food grain supply to people in Below Poverty Line (BPL) families, but bill has its detractors.

NAC council member and development economist Jean Drèze issued a dissent note saying that “an opportunity [had] been missed to initiate a radical departure in this field.” Dr. Drèze who played a critical role in the formulation of two of NAC’s most important programmes — the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme and the path-breaking Right to Information Act—said, “The NAC began its deliberations on a visionary note, but later came under a lot of pressure to accommodate constraints imposed by the government.” The final result, he says, is “a minimalist proposal that misses many important elements of food security.” Neelabh Mishra, in an opinion piece in Outlook objects to the wording of the bill. His objection pertains to a passage in the draft bill: “The definition of food security should be limited to the specific issue of food grains security (wheat and rice) and be delinked from the larger issue of nutritional security.” He says that 33 percent of Indians have Body Mass Index (BMI) less than 18.5 and barely misses 40 percent benchmark according to which WHO considers a society to be famine affected. Mishra argues that the proposed draft bill is fundamentally flawed and falls short of expectations and requirements.

Criticism of the Draft bill and NAC’s proposal is not restricted to the food grain entitlement alone. The mode of delivery also came under sharp attack. Whereas the NAC proposed a greater role for PDS, in a paper circulated within the government, Chief Economic Adviser to the Finance Ministry Kaushik Basu has argued that, the need of the hour is a reduced role for the Food Corporation of India, winding up of the Public Distribution System (PDS) and interventions in the food market. He refers to a study that currently 70% of wheat under BPL does not reach beneficiaries.

His contention is reinforced by Justice Wadhwa Committee, appointed by Supreme Court of India, which concluded that PDS is corrupt, inefficient and a majority of the poor people do not have BPL cards. As a solution, Basu says that instead of the reliance on PDS, food coupons could be given to adult woman members of a household, to ensure that food grains reach family members in a more reliable manner. The food coupon system could be dovetailed into the Unique Identity Number (UID) or Aadhaar system and eventually coupons could be replaced by smart cards linked to a mobile banking system.

His idea may have been inspired by American system of food coupons, but with a Gini co-efficient (which measures the inequality of wealth distribution in a country) higher than India can American system be taken as a role model is a question that needs to be answered. With the doubts that are being expressed about UID scheme it will be worthwhile for government to consider all issues in a comprehensive manner and arrive at a solution to alleviate hunger in the country, rather than resort to some ad hoc measures for temporary political gains.


Grim Politics of Hunger: Food Security in India

Nemmani Sreedhar

Chennai: India, the land of paradoxes, has yet another paradox in its long list. But this one is not pleasant; government does not advertise it for tourism development. It could as well have swept this issue under the carpet, and pretend that it never existed. The paradox, of ‘Huge stock of food grains rotting in government controlled Food Corporation of India’s (FCI) warehouses while masses of poor people go to sleep hungry,’ represents the soft underbelly of the thriving economy, slated to grow at 9% or more annually. According to an estimate, a staggering 25 percentage of people in India (with a population of 1.173 billion) go hungry everyday.

Challenging this insensitivity on government’s part, People’s Union for Civil Liberties, Rajasthan held a petition in the Supreme Court (SC) in April 2001 (PUCL Vs Union of India and Others, Writ Petition [Civil] 196 of 2001), demanding that ‘the country’s gigantic food stocks should be used without delay to protect people from hunger and starvation.’ This writ petition led to series of prolonged public interest litigation, and after may other petitions concerning corruption in Public Distribution System (PDS) and other food security related issues, SC on 31 Aug 2010 gave a directive to the Ministry of Agriculture, that rotting grains be given freely to the poor people. Reacting to the directive, Prime Minister of India Manmohan Singh said, “The government will do all it can to provide affordable food to those below the poverty line but cannot implement the Supreme Court’s order to give free food grains to the poor,” and advised SC not to enter into ‘the realm of policy formulation.’ PM’s response triggered a huge outcry from the public as well as media, blaming the government for skirting its responsibilities and as being insensitive to the plight of poor people.

Judicial activism apart, owing to the sensitivity of the issue, United Progressive Alliance’s (UPA) National Advisory Committee (NAC) headed by Sonia Gandhi decided to work out the feasibility of utilizing the vast food grain stock amassed at the FCI warehouses to address the issue of hunger. It also sent a draft Food Security bill to Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) as early as June 2009, but the bill that was approved by the Empowered Group of Ministers (EGoM) failed to meet the expectations of not only people but also NAC Chairperson. With this a huge debate started between Government of India and NAC, along with debates in the public sphere. The proposals that the NAC had put forward were termed infeasible by the Government. Even Planning Commission along with government said, (to name an example) that no legal guarantees can be give to people in above poverty line (APL) regarding food security. But the grim reality of the food security debate is that with all this legal and political wrangling, the fate of poor people is still precarious. The pace at which Indian government moves during the course of taking a critical decision is well known. We can only hope that good sense prevails in the government for the benefit of poor people.


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