Thursday, January 5, 2012

The Politics over Food Security

With growing population and shrinking resources, the issue of food security is very crucial for developing countries like India. It became utmost urgent when there are very less institutions for social security.
At present, the government have introduced many such programmes appearing as social welfare programme, but in real, all are designed with stingy strings attached. I happened to be at a national seminar organized by WTO centre of IIFT, ‘Seminar on Prospects of India’s Agriculture Export In 2025: Opportunities, Challenges and Roadmap’. During this seminar I got valuable inputs on some of these programmes.  (Detailed report can be obtained from organizers, this discussion on only focused to MNREGA and Food Security Bill).
The discussion and presentations on ‘Agriculture and Farmers’ it was explained that artificial shortage of manpower and increased cost of manpower has happened due to MNREGA (Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act). The marginal farmers and mid-size farmer are the most affected group, while it has no impact of big farmers. The non-farm activities of rural areas are also badly affected by this programme.
As per my analysis, the MNREGA not only weakening the agrarian economy but it is also breaking the independent support system of rural communities. Now, the landless labourers, unemployed, and farmer-cum-labourers are entirely dependent on this unproductive external help. The middle-man’s cut by bureaucrats and political leaders is regular sin as it happen with all government programmes. If such negative programme is intentionally being pushed by government, knowing its long lasting impact, there is only one reason behind it: the electoral gains. Return of UPA government proved this fact.
Now, moving on the proposed ‘Food Security Bill’ by NAC... this bill is loaded with the same motive visible through the analysis of its different aspects.
            As one of the speakers, Dr Himanshu from CSRD, JNU,  pointed out that the distribution aspect is very important for food security, because agriculture production is higher than demand today. Despite this the calorie consumption is declining, which shows that surplus distribution is not being done. However, the  proposed food security bill by NAC, he said that providing food grains through Public Distribution System (PDS) only to BPL/APL households would not address the real problem. It is rather a retrograde step which can lead to higher corruption, inaccessibility for the poor, and mismanagement of procured food grains. According to him, universalisation of PDS, and not targeted PDS, as currently practiced, is the best way to ensure the food security. A universal PDS is not only the best possible option from the perspective of a rights based approach, it is also far more realistic in its commitment to ensure food security for the poor. He cited the examples of universalisation from MNREGA and RTE. It is not justified to limit food security only to BPL families. Limiting food security for BPL families has severely impaired the effective access to food for poor families. In particular, large numbers of poor families did not have BPL cards and even when they had cards, access to PDS was not automatic; and even if they had access to the PDS, they did not receive the full entitlement of food. He showed that universalisation of PDS is feasible, even at current rates of procurement by the Government. He stressed that universalisation is not only feasible but it is desirable too – it will ensure lower leakages and better off-take by the poor and it will also be within the procurement and fiscal constraints. As it will cover the entire population, it will be in line with the larger objective of ensuring food security for all.
I further studied the successful case studies of universal PDS by Chhatishgarh and Tamil Nadhu. Even the food items were available for all, the Above Poverty Line population dint use the facility in both states. The NAC and government is adamant on making ‘Food Security’ exclusive, would hurt only the poorest who have no political power, knowledge and presence.  Despite these obvious suggestions government is eyeing on the vote bank, the identity politics is on the minds of NAC members. BPL is targeted group here, just like caste and religion reservation, notwithstanding with the fact that none of the actual deprived take those reservations in higher education and higher posts, the only motive of government is the electoral one.


Karmasura said...

Universal PDS might still have the natural glitches of a government run scheme. How is the professor going to overcome those?

I'd rather say government work as an enabler of tech like guj, produce more, improve infrastructure, perhaps do something to eliminate middle men like what SMC and AMC are doing (setting up plots or malls for farmers to sell off food directly), improve/increase storage facilities, cold storage, etc. to improve food availability.

Dr Rita Pal said...

Over the years, what has the Government's progress been on improving poverty in India?

Secondly, as I know little about operational politics in India - does the government consult with a broad range of groups before drafting their bills - or is it simply an invention by the civil servants.

Very well argued AS. I learned something new today :)


Dr Rita Pal said...

PS I meant to add - perhaps the government does not feel it is in its "interests" to improve poverty. After all, socio-economic improvement is linked to intellectual progress. Power or control cannot be achieved if there is intellectual progress. Congress has one supreme aim - to control. I may be cynical but I actually don't believe the government is able to do anything constructive to improve poverty - if they did, they would probably be out of power soon enough.

Dr Rita Pal