Tag Archives: Jean Drèze

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.