Food bill doesn't promote security

The quality of food supplied by PDS is abysmally low and may lead to negative health impact.

After coming back to power in 2009, the UPA II government promised to pass the Food Security Act within 100 days. However, despite good intentions, it took three years and constant prodding of the National Advisory Committee (NAC) headed by its chairperson Sonia Gandhi for the government to move; the Food Security Bill (FSB) was introduced in Parliament recently, envisages provision of cheap food grains to meet the food and nutritional security of the poorest vulnerable groups in the country, but falls far short of the earlier promise.

The reduced availability of food grains per person to 7 kg instead of 35 kg for the family, targeted beneficiaries who are yet to be identified and the way it will be implemented have all led to more confusion than resolving the delicate issue of eradicating hunger. Will this bill be able to address the issue of food security? Will it reduce hunger and malnutrition, and provide succour to millions of people who are living in interior forest regions and in urban slums?

Nutritional requirement

The most important issue is: will the provision of 7 kg of cereals like wheat or rice and some pulses per family meet the nutritional requirement of the family? The high inflation in agricultural commodities, despite bumper harvest of pulses, vegetables and fruits have led to increase in malnutrition rates among the vulnerable groups. In reality, the quality of food supplied through PDS is  abysmally low and may lead to negative impact on health. The Supreme Court has reprimanded the government for storing food grain in unhygienic conditions. It lacks micronutrients that are essential for developing the body.  It also has high trace of elements of pesticides residues that may eventually harm the health of the poorest groups.

The food grain procured for the PDS is basically from Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Andhra Pradesh. The food produced in these regions is heavily subsidised with support for irrigation and fertilizers. This is procured at higher prices from farmers and middlemen and then passed on to Food Corporation of India to be supplied through PDS. Consider the transport costs and the food miles to move food grain over thousand of kilometers.

The PDS needs to be restructured towards local procurement and decentralised storage. The NAC has categorically recommended procurement of food grains for PDS within 10 km radius and cash payment to farmers on the spot. However this important aspect has been left out in the final version of the bill.

The flooding of cheap rice in southern and eastern region in the country from northern states has forced the farmers to quit farming as it has become financially uneconomical and unviable. Many states in the country are providing additional subsidies for food grains through PDS. Of this, the case of Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh is extreme as they are distributing rice at Re one per kg.

Ironically, the ground level situation in these states indicates the phenomenon of drastic land use change from growing food grains to cash or horticulture crops. For example in Kerala the paddy land has decreased form 8 to 2 lakh hectares over a span of the last 20 years. It is a matter of pride for farmers to cultivate their own food by ‘husbanding’ the agricultural fields. They have become ‘beggars’ as a result of freebies and cheap food provided through the PDS.

The dependence on industrial agriculture to provide food and nutritional security is a recipe for ecological disaster and social catastrophe. In the era of energy crisis and climate change affecting agriculture, it will be suicidal to depend entirely on chemical based agriculture to meet our needs for food grains.

The FSB needs to address these ground realities before it embarks on implementing the Act. These populist schemes may help the UPA to win the elections, but in the process it would have led to irreversible damage to country’s food production system resulting in food insecurity of unprecedented scale.

We need to work towards attaining ‘food sovereignty’ in which the farmer’s access to land, seeds, water and other inputs are assured with a decent return for their produce, making agriculture a profitable venture that can attract the youth. Probably this will resolve the crisis in the farm sector and revive the countryside, and will help towards economic recovery of the country.

But the question is: do our political leaders have the will to bring such drastic pro farmer policies to grow food? Or they are more satisfied with cosmetic changes doling out cheap food grains that will lead to more food insecurity?

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