Parliamentary prescriptions revive hunger debate
A report by a parliamentary standing committee entrusted to examine the National Food Security Bill, 2011 has revived the debate on what measures India must take to end its abysmal track record of hunger and malnutrition, (See several links given below) despite successive years of high growth and record grain procurement. The draft legislation is likely to be debated in the upcoming session of Parliament, even as the recent Jaipur Declaration by the ruling Congress party promises to end hunger and malnutrition in India by 2020.
The report by the committee, made up of 29 MPs across party lines, has suggested an individual entitlement of 5kg of grain per month, as opposed to the current entitlement of 35kg per family (roughly 7 kg per individual). Civil society groups have pointed out that this reduced allocation is well below required health norms, even more so for individuals engaged in hard labour, many of whom depend on the PDS.
The committee estimates that implementing the act will cost Rs 1,09,796 crore in 2012-13, and while backing the law, expresses worries about its financial sustainability in the future, especially with population rise. Some economists have questioned this estimate, while others argue that the investment is not high given it is still below 1% of India’s GDP. The committee has also controversially suggested that states be divided into three categories as per their financial performance to determine whether they should or should not share the food subsidy bill with the centre, and to what degrees. However, the report does not suggest any parameters on which this classification can be made.
While sidestepping the issue of high rates of child malnutrition, it has also argued that maternity benefits (of Rs 1000 a month for 6 months) to expectant mothers not be extended beyond two children. A dissent note from one of the members argues against this proposal, saying such norms and penalties on the mother and child are unfair.
The report has also warned against the government’s bid for replacing grain entitlements with direct cash transfers till such time as the financial and banking infrastructure has not been put in place. However, it does not refer to evidence from the ground, which points not just to the roll-out of the cash transfer model, but also the fact that villagers in some instances have voiced a preference for grain over cash, while pointing to the inconvenience of accessing bank services.
The opponents of cash transfer include Raman Singh, the Chief Minister of Chhattisgarh, a state which has over the past years introduced a host of technological and administrative measures in its PDS machinery to ensure timely grain deliveries to needy families, while also making the system universal.
In a letter to the Prime Minister, stating that cash transfers not be introduced in Chhattisgarh, Singh wrote:
“There are lots of problems in implementation of cash subsidy transfer under PDS. In my view, Fair Price Shops under PDS are the only viable and convenient option for access to foodgrains in rural areas in the State. Financial inclusion and availability of IT infrastructure are preconditions to any scheme of cash transfers. There are substantial problems in the State on both accounts. It would also be difficult to fix the monthly cash subsidies in view of fluctuation in market prices. The system is also vulnerable to misuse of cash subsidy amount by the male heads of the households or purchase of non PDS commodities which would defeat the very purpose for which the subsidies are proposed to be transferred.”
The committee also reiterates the principle of caps on the population entitled to subsidised grain, as opposed to a universal PDS, as is being implemented in states like Chhattisgarh and Tamil Nadu.
National FoodSecurity Bill, 2011, Bill No. 132 of 2011 (as introduced in Lok Sabha)
Standing Committee Reporton National Food Security Bill, 2011, Twenty Seventh Report (January, 2013),Fifteenth Lok Sabha
Cash Subsidy for Kerosene Pilot: Poor stand Deprived by Design?-Case of Kotkasim, Alwar, Rajasthan (part 1)
Revivalof the Public Distribution System: Evidence and Explanations-Reetika Khera, Economic and Political Weekly, 5 November, 2011 Vol xlvi no 44 & 45
Media reports andstudies on the costs of food security and cash transfer rollouts:
Limit nutrition planto only first 2 kids: Panel -Nitin Sethi, The Times of India, 24 January, 2013,
Securing Food forAll: Is It Really Difficult to Afford? -Praveen Jha and Nilachala Acharya,Economic and Political Weekly, Vol xlviII No 4, January 26, 2013
The cost of foodsecurity, The Hindu, 20 January, 2013, http://www.thehindu.com/opinion/columns/Chandrasekhar/the-
Aadhaar-linked DBThits roadblock in East Godavari -Mohammad Ali, The Hindu, 21 January, 2013,
Rice wars-ChitrangadaChoudhury, The Hindustan Times, 12 November, 2008, http://www.hindustantimes.com/India-news/Chhattisgarh/Rice
Cash in lieu of PDS: A dangerous step-Sachin Kumar Jain, Panchayatnama, 17 December-23 December, 2012
Cash in lieu of PDS: A dangerous step-Sachin Kumar Jain, P
anchayatnama, 17 December-23 December, 2012
ENDING HUNGER-A special issue, Seminar, June, 2012, http://india-seminar.com/2012/634.htm