Abhijeet Sen, Member, Planning Commission interviewed by Rupashree Nanda


Abhijeet Sen, Member, Planning Commission talks about the many contentious issues surrounding the Right to Food Act. Does India have enough grain, is it willing to pledge resources, or is it simply anxious to limit its commitments. In fact, why have a Right to Food at all?

Rupashree Nanda: Sir, the many drafts of the ambitious legislation "Right To Food", have been disappointing. The Planning Commission note is almost a let down. When so little is promised, why have a "Right to Food" at all? What difference will it make?

Abhijeet Sen: The immediate reason why it is being considered is because it was part of the Congress party manifesto and also part of the President's speech in Parliament. There is however one very good reason for some kind of legislation in this matter. Over several years, the Supreme Court has been listening and delivering judgments in the right to food case. And in this context a case law has built up and it is desirable that the set of those judgments become codified in an act. That would be the purely legal reason.

Rupashree Nanda: But will it make any difference?

Abhijeet Sen: What the Supreme Court has said in a set of judgments is that the government has many schemes with which it tries to do a lot of things but, it often fails to deliver on its promises. If enacted well and, if there is a provision to hold people responsible, then it could actually serve a purpose.

Rupashree Nanda: Do you think that this legislation, with minimal entitlements, is what is needed? Will it improve things?

Abhijeet Sen: I would not stick my neck out and say that an act would immediately improve things. But yes, I think to some extent, if you can take someone to court that is not doing something that he is lawfully supposed to do then I think you increase compliance with people who are not doing what they are supposed to do.

Rupashree Nanda: How is a "right" that applies to one section of the population be called a "right" at all? the right to food has to be universal, the entitlements could be diffferntial? By definition, a right cannot be partial...

Abhijeet Sen: An act of parliament that gives a right cannot actually give a right which is applicable to some people and not applicable to others. An act, can, of course, make provisions for certain special categories. A right to food act must first start by identifying what is universal. I think the entire dialogue in this area is really about availability of food, access to food, and then the issue of being able to absorb it. There are certain things that can easily be done.

On the availability side there could be the responsibility of the state for something. Maintain adequate stocks of food grains in all parts of the country at all times. This could be codified. There should be at least a minimum quantity properly stored, and must be replenished when the stock runs down below a certain level. That would be a universal thing. If you had the money you could buy the grain because that grain would be universally available. Then you come to the access issue. This is what people have been talking about in the context of the present food security act ....whether 35 kilos or 25 kilos ... at what price etc. I don't think that is necessarily the best way of thinking about the access issue at all. The reason why people are thinking about it is because it was part of a manifesto. Access need not be through cheap food. It could be for example by having something which ensures that people have the ability to access that food by ensuring that their incomes don't fall below a certain level. You could do that, for example, by having index linked wages through MNREGA. That would be a much more sensible thing to do than to fixing food prices low.

Rupashree Nanda: For how long is the Government willing to promise grain at Rs 3 or Rs 2 a kilo... 5 years, 10 years...?

Abhijeet Sen: It will not remain the same for ever. It would be senseless in economic terms. Just as it is senseless to have the wage rate fixed forever irrespective of whatever is happening to prices, it would be senseless to have the food prices fixed, whatever is happening to wages!

If you did not have a low price for food, you could maybe extended number of days in the MNREGA. It would still leave out the old, the disabled, urban areas etc. You have to include them and we have architecture in the Antodaya. You could have a disability pension. You could expand the category of people in the Antodaya scheme if you feel that the group is too small. There seems to be a case for not having grains sold at prices which are too far from what the farmer receives.

Rupashree Nanda: What will happen if you do that?

Abhijeet Sen:If you had the price fixed at near or below support price, most farmers would hold their grain rather than sell and buy back. Many would not be in the market and the demand for this grain would be low. Many other people who prefer to do their shopping from the local grocer shop would do that and not go to the ration shop. That is the way the universal public distribution system had worked before but that was not a highly subsidized system. One of the problems in trying to give a high subsidy to everyone is that everyone would want it, in which case the system would collapse. Much of what you are seeing in the discussions regarding the right to food is also that.

There are some people who argue, "no no the price must be very low, and we must be able to give it to every one", and that is where it is running into problems. If the price is very low and if everyone wants it, then you have to have very large amounts, say, 90 million tones. The total quantity of rice and wheat we produce is around 120-190 million tonnes, knock of 10 million for feed and seed. 90 mill would be less than half of that.

One option is to extend the Antodaya and ensure that it covers everyone it ought to. It may actually be even as large as the poverty figures of the government though that would be to stretch the notion of Antodaya too far and that is where the universality problem runs into. And then you have to define who is poor and who is not poor. It is rather better to define who is old, who is disabled, who is destitute. You could do what I believe the NAC is considering things like urban community kitchens where subsidized food is served, free food etc. This category will not be allowed to go hungry.

Rupashree Nanda: But if the price is high for the APL category, will that not defeat the purpose?

Abhijeet Sen: Enough food should be made available and effort must be made to provide this at reasonable prices. Government should hold stocks and not become monopolists. The act should not allow that. The government operation is not distorting the market much, but would be stabilizing the market. The great benefit is that the APL population in ordinary times would not go to the ration shop, but if there is a drought, then the APL population could go to the ration shop and demand the ration, they'll get it.

Rupashree Nanda: Why is the governmnet trying so hard to keep its commitments low?

Abhijeet Sen: I think what the planning commission note says that for all those who are not covered by the BPL, there would be an entitlement and this would be less than the minimum support price. That is perfectly sensible because at today's prices for example this would give a lot of relief to those who care to go to the ration shop.

Rupashree Nanda: If the right to food is enacted wouldn't a lot of people actually end up paying more than they do now? The government will end up spending less than what it already does?

Abhijeet Sen: I think whatever is the act, in a federal structure like ours; the act must leave enough space for the state governments to do the sort of things that they have been doing act or no act. The act should not, cannot cut off the ability of the state governments to do whatever they have been doing and I think that would determine to some extent how the act can be drawn up. One size fits all will not work. Access thing could be differently chosen by the states.

Rupashree Nanda: Is money the main issue, or is grain the real issue for keeping entitlements conservative?

Abhijeet Sen: I think the spending money part is not the critical thing. The critical thing has always been the likely demand you are going to make on procurement and the public distribution system. I think the planning commission has been talking about, I think generally everyone is agreeing around a figure of 50 to 55 million tonnes.

Rupashree Nanda: But production can and will go up if you hike the minimum support price? Why don't you do that?

Abhijeet Sen: For the simple reason that it is going to kill whatever market exists. Because, after all, this is not going to give everybody the grain. It will provide at least one third or less than half of what some people need. Those prices could go skyrocketing. You would be creating a huge shortage because the government will try acquiring everything that comes to the market. Short of creating huge chaos you cannot do it. And it is not necessary.

 

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