How not to fight hunger

Food Security Act

When Atal Bihari Vajpayee for the first time unfurled the national flag from the ramparts of the Red Fort in New Delhi, he promised to turn the infamous Kalahandi hunger belt in western Orissa into a food bowl. If only Vajpayee had made a serious attempt to wipe out hunger from Kalahandi, and follow it up with a nationwide programme to feed the hungry millions, the BJP wouldn't have been in a pitiable condition today.

And when President Pratibha Patil reiterated her government’s  resolve to bring in a National Food Security Act in a bid to provide every hungry family with 25 kg of foodgrains priced at Rs 3 a kilo, it was certainly an exciting news. After all, 62 years after Independence, the government finally makes a promise to feed the hungry nation. For the 320 million who are officially categorised as hungry, nothing could be more heartening. And for another 600 million, who are able to spend less than Rs 20 a day, there appears to be some hope.

Barely in saddle, have mandarins in the food and agriculture ministry and in the Planning Commission swung into action, working overtime to give shape to the promise made by the Congress in its election manifesto. And if what we read in the newspapers is any indication, we have all the reasons to be worried. There appears to be little hope for the hungry. They must live and die in hunger.

Modelled along the lines of the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS), the proposed National Food Security Act does not see beyond rights. While the success of the NREGS is still debatable, and we all know is mired in corruption and large-scale siphoning-off of the funds designated for the unemployed poor, the proposed National Food Security Act too is drawn more or less on the pattern of an equally corrupt and ineffective Public Distribution System (PDS).  And this is where ends the promise of feeding a hungry nation.

Home to the world’s largest hungry population, India’s record on hunger is worse than that of nearly 25 sub-Saharan African countries. Ranked 66th among 88 vulnerable countries in the Global Hunger Index prepared by the International Food Policy Research institute, none of the states is categorised under ‘low hunger’ or ‘moderate hunger category.’ Let us not forget, the abysmally low ranking of India in the Global Hunger Index is despite the PDS, which is supposed to act as a safety net for the vulnerable sections of the society.

In fact, if the PDS had been even partially effective, there is no reason why Punjab and for that matter Kerala, the best performing states in terms of hunger, should be ranked below Gabon, Honduras and Vietnam. 

Extending the same PDS or introducing a revamped PDS to meet the objectives of the National Food Security Act is therefore unlikely to make any meaningful difference to the plight of the hungry and malnourished.

At present, the government provides 35 kg of food grains, including wheat and rice, to 65.2 million families classified as living below the poverty line (BPL). These subsidised rations are made available at a price of Rs 4.15 per kg for wheat and Rs 5.65 per kg for rice. For the 24.3 million families classified under the Antyodya scheme (also part of the BPL category), the price of grains is reduced to Rs 2 for wheat and Rs 3 for rice.

Now let us look at the situation with above the poverty line (APL) families. There are roughly 115.2 million APL card holders. They get wheat at Rs 6.10 and rice at Rs 8.30 per kg, respectively. I am not sure what kind of tinkering the government is likely to do when it comes to the monthly ration for the APL families, the fact remains that foodgrains are being made available at a price much lower than the market price.

PDS on paper

The public distribution system caters to 115.2 million APL families and another 65.2 million BPL families. In others words, subsidised food is being available to a total of 180.4 million families. If you consider each family to comprise on an average of five persons, the PDS on paper meets the food requirement of 900 million people.

If this is true, there’s no reason why the country should have the largest population of hungry in the world. 

The National Food Security Act would therefore entail less burden on the government.

The food requirement would be drastically reduced from the existing 27 million tonnes to about 20 million tonnes, and the annual subsidy outgo would also be lowered by an estimated Rs 5,000 crore. It surely is a win-win situation for the government. What happens to the poor and hungry is a different question.

Since hunger proliferates, and malnourishment thrives extensively, any effort to curtail the PDS is not less than a crime. I don't know what objective the National Food Security Act would achieve by revamping the existing system. Whether it is by better targeting or by cash transfer to the vulnerable section of the population, Sonia Gandhi's desire to provide food to the hungry millions would remain a dream.

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