A RECIPE FOR DISASTER
The Government’s flagship scheme to fight hunger is inherently flawed in many ways
So the Food Security Bill is through. More than two- thirds of the country’s population has now been promised highly subsidised food. Congress and UPA will get extra percentage points in votes. Add another 2- 3 percentage points because of good monsoon and you get a good enough swing for it to come back next year. The BJP was checkmated as it was impossible for it to play its usual flawless doublespeak.
I am asked what could be bad about ensuring elimination of hunger and malnutrition. I would like to ask a counter question. What is good about the Food Security Bill?
It promises to finally eliminate hunger and malnutrition, they say. How? Because now the poor can buy wheat, rice and coarse cereal at subsidised rates. How will the poor be identified, I ask; that will happen, they say. Where will the poor buy from, I ask; the Public Distribution System ( PDS), they say. Where? I ask again. The PDS shop, they say. And why will the PDS shop now suddenly start working when it has not for so many decades? Because now it’s a right, and people can demand redressal from the courts, they say.
So let’s grant this— the PDS will now start to function because the Government will use better technology. How will it work? The Government will buy grains from production centres, store and transport them to consumption centres, and then sell them at subsidised rates through
PDS. Each of these will cost. Of course the PDS system itself will need to be strengthened almost everywhere. This will also cost. The hi- tech sounding technology is not costless; the Aadhar number needs biometric identification. All of this will cost a lot. A paper coming from the Government’s own Commission for Agricultural Costs and Prices ( CACP) puts the total figure at about Rs 682,000 crore over a three- year period. It is highly unlikely that the Government can spend this, and the system cannot work well unless it is implemented well. Chidambaram, fighting his needless forex battles, cannot loosen the purse strings. And even if he does, no one in this Government has the ability to implement it. Without some serious money backed by serious project management skills the subsidised food will not reach where it is intended to. There will therefore be leakages. The leakage itself is estimated at about Rs 200,000 crore by the CACP. These are all nitty- gritties of implementation, but the Food Security Bill is inherently flawed in many other ways.
Who will have control over the whole process? They have not incorporated the Panchayati Raj institutions, because they are not good enough. They have not involved the private sector as they are apparently not to be trusted. The trader is of course responsible for everything that’s wrong with India, so he cannot be used. So the only people who have any control over its implementation are the bureaucrats and politicians like Manmohan Singh or Sharad Pawar who will oversee them.
Further, the data shows that malnutrition is a problem in India. But academic laziness is rampant, and the designers of the Act missed getting into the components of malnutrition; it is essentially because of poor access to proteins, iron, and other micronutrients. Where do we get those from? Fruits, vegetables, pulses, beans, milk, meat, eggs and fish. What does the Food Security Bill not cover? Fruits, vegetables, pulses, beans, milk, meat, eggs, fish!
The Food Security Bill will not cause an immediate disaster. But like the roots of the pipal tree it will slowly eat into the foundations of the Indian society and economy. Some of us will benefit greatly from it, enjoy its shade for many years to come; but the tree will extract its price. It will worsen the malnutrition problem as now calories will be far cheaper compared with other nutrients. It will worsen the inflation problem, as farmers will find it far more profitable to continue producing wheat and rice when India is demanding other foods. It will prove disastrous for private agriculture trade and its whole ecosystem as the Government will crowd it out.
All of this is very predictable, just as the current economic crisis was. Don’t take it lightly, it is not about Rs 120,000 crore or Rs 25,000 crore; this Act will weaken India’s foundations.