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Food for thought!
The fault with most government policies is that they look impressive at first glance but flatter to deceive later on. As a result, most of them reveal inadequacies and gaps that show up only they are given a closer look and examined in greater detail. One hopes that the Food Security Bill, awaiting passage in Parliament, passes the test of scrutiny by our public representatives. But given the manner in which it is sought to be passed in Parliament, without any elaborate consultative process and debate, the Bill is likely to be weighed down by several infirmities that might undermine its more positive features. In its current form, the Bill seems to be devoid of a long-term perspective and vision. Many policy experts are of the opinion that it is long on populism and short on economic pragmatism.
For instance, the Bill purports to divide India’s population into distinct categories - “priority”, “general” and “excluded”. But it fails to offer a clear definition that would help identify and separate these categories. This lacuna alone will create problems of exclusion and inclusion of BPL households and make the whole process of categorisation prone to claims and counterclaims. Given the fact that the definition of BPL (Below Poverty Line)is itself ambiguous, errors in exclusion and inclusion could create rifts among the people and widen the scope for official discrimination in identifying the deserving beneficiaries.
Even the entitlement to 25 kg of food grain per BPL household appears to hold little benefit. At present, under the Antodaya Anna Yojana, the government provides 35 kg of food grains - wheat at Rs.2 per kg, which is lower than the price envisaged in the Food Security Bill, and rice at Rs. 3 per kg to the poorest families within the BPL category. According to the provisions of the Bill, BPL families will get only 25 kg a month and the balance will have to be bought from the open market, virtually neutralising the benefit of getting grains at Rs 3. a kg. So actually, these families will end up paying more and getting less. Taking the argument further, the Food Security Bill in its current form would only be able to address the problem of hunger and not malnutrition. Under the provisions of the Bill, households will be provided with grains that would be enough only for bare survival.
It looks unlikely that the Bill will serve to improve India’s current low ranking in the Global Hunger Index. The country is currently placed at a dismal 67th position among the 84 rated countries, and lags behind its neighbours China, Sri Lanka and even Pakistan. A recent research conducted by the International Food Policy Research Institute, which was based on three main parameters – spread of malnutrition, child mortality rate and calorie deficiency ratio – found that India lags behind on all the benchmarks. In comparison, China is streets ahead at the ninth place and its method of delivery, distribution and supply of food grains is much better and effective than India’s. Even Pakistan and Nepal fare better than India in dealing with hunger and malnutrition. Malnutrition, especially among children in India, is one of the highest in the world with 47% of children showing signs of malnourishment (World Bank estimates). Various estimates show that as many as 200 million Indians suffer from malnutrition. A joint study sponsored by ADB and UNICEF has found that India loses as much as Rs.981.8 billion per year due to lower productivity linked to undernourishment.
Clearly, the country’s PDS system needs to be first upgraded and improved significantly. A shocking 4 million tonnes of pulses is laid waste every year thanks to the decrepit nature of our PDS. Considering that 120 kgs of pulses are required by a family every year for consumption, we arrive at a jaw-dropping figure of 3.3 million families being deprived of food due to our distribution slippages. Policymakers should first aim to put in place a supportive infrastructure for distribution and delivery of food grains before seeking to roll out the implementation of Food Security Bill.