19 October 2009

Food Security and Poverty

My article on the proposed Food Security Act in India is in the Financial Express today. The Government's proposal in principle extends the right to food to all citizens in India but limits the legal binding on it only for the population that lies below the poverty line (BPL) - and here there is a wide range of the estimates of poverty in the country - ranging from 38% according to the Tendulkar committee set up by the Planning Commission recently to 77% set by the 2007 Arjun Sengupta Committee. The NC Saxena Expert Group for the 2009 Census of BPL households in rural areas puts the estimate at 50%, but says that 80% of rural households would be more appropriate if the calorie consumption is to be 2,400 calories in rural areas

Read the Report of the committee on the methodology for estimating the population in India below the poverty line, particularly the dissent note by P. Sainath for a compelling argument on why coverage of the food security act should be universal.

My conclusion in the article:

The reason behind limiting coverage of the Act has to be fiscal, and the Centre should admit that outright. Under the present Public Distribution System (PDS), the higher estimates of BPL population can raise the food subsidy bill by 25% to 140%, depending on which estimate is used. However these estimates assume that the PDS continues in its present form. Instead of looking at the high subsidy costs as a deterrent, the Centre should keep the spirit behind a Food Security Act foremost in mind—systems set up should be decentralised and allow greater flexibility to the states with the idea for organisational cost savings. A simple example is to distribute coarse cereals, pulses, fruits and vegetables suited to the local conditions through a revamped, new PDS, rather than use rice or wheat transported long distances from other states.

In fact, if the primary responsibility of providing food security is to lie with the state governments, as the Act proposes, why not minimise the role of the Centre to being a facilitator, rather than a controller of the whole food stock trade and distribution? There is much to be said for making the right to food a universal right and there is ample evidence to show that targeted systems increase the scope of corruption. Clearly, the Food Security Act is an important step forward, but it should not narrow its focus and result in two steps back in the battle against hunger in this country.

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