Tackling Maoism

The food security act

The Right to Food, to be enforced through the proposed Food Security Act, is one of the basic components of the UPA-II vision of inclusive growth. Under the Act, each BPL family would be provided 35 kg of foodgrains (rice and wheat) per month at Rs 2 or 3 per kg while the current market price is in the range of Rs 12-18.

This is expected to end starvation deaths in India. Critics, however, argue that 35 kg of grains would be enough to feed a family of four for only about 15 days. Hence, even if it eliminates starvation deaths, this alone would not provide the minimum calorie requirements. If the price of grains for BPL cardholders is fixed at Rs 2 per kg while the current market price varies in the range of Rs 12 to 18, then this would be equivalent to a cash transfer in the range of Rs 350 to Rs 560 per month per family.

For families with alternate sources of income this scheme would be a supplementary transfer, which may have significant consequences for different sections of the rural population. A recent study of the impact of a similar food security scheme (35 kg of grains at Re 1 per kg for ultra-poor families and Rs 2 per kg for the poor families) implemented in Chhattisgarh since 2006 throws light on the likely consequences of the Food Security Act, as and when it would be implemented throughout the country.

Overall, expectedly, the number of starvation deaths has come down drastically in Chhattisgarh. But since there is no protection against the rise in the price of pulses and oilseeds during the recent spurt in food inflation, there has not been a significant improvement in nutrition levels.

The impact of the near-universal food security net has been different for big farmers, small farmers and agricultural labourers. Chhattisgarh is predominately a rice-growing area. Most landless workers used to work on other peoples’ land against wages paid in kind (principally rice).

Now a large part of their food requirement is being met by the food security programme and more work opportunities at minimum wages are available under NREGA projects in the villages. As a result, they are looking for non-farm work (including working in mines and brick kilns) against wages paid in money so that they can buy things other than foodgrains.

More work opportunities and better bargaining power have raised the wage rates for agricultural labour. This has made life specially difficult for small farmers who cannot afford to offer to the workers higher wages or a large number of work days compared to what the big farmers can provide.

Spending on vegetables

Some big farmers are moving away from paddy to cash crops (like vegetables) as the local demand for paddy (from which rice is derived) has come down and people are able to spend more on vegetables. Another contributory factor is the greater shortage of labour in the paddy cultivating season when many workers are busy cultivating their tiny plots of land. Labour is more easily available in the non-paddy season when vegetables can be grown.

At the same time, paddy itself is becoming more like a commercial crop. Earlier, much of the paddy cultivation was for subsistence. The production was mostly used to meet the family requirement for staple food (rice) and seeds for next year. Whatever little surplus remained was sold for cash. As the food requirement is largely being taken care of by cheap grains from ration shops, more surplus is becoming available to be sold in the market for cash. This is leading to greater  monetisation of the rural economy.

Once the basic food security net is available, many farmers  are also able to take greater risk and are found to invest more in HYV (high yielding variety) seeds and irrigation (like wells and pump sets) often with the help of bank credit. Ever increasing MSP (minimum support price) for rice and wheat and the government’s readiness to buy any surplus at MSP is an additional factor inducing farmers to go for paddy cultivation as a commercial crop.

Consequently, the total area under paddy cultivation may not necessarily go down in Chhattisgarh. Even here, the big farmers have an advantage in that they find it easier to sell their surplus to the government procurement agencies than small farmers — specially when the agencies are under pressure to fulfil a procurement quota.

Despite the near-universal food security net, Chhattisgarh continues to be a hot bed of Maoist activities. Is it because the benefits of the food security net have not percolated to the remote tribal areas due to faulty distribution of ration cards and non-availability of foodgrains in PDS ration shops?  

Or, is it because many of them do not have any other source of earning and they are not able to buy their full entitlement of food even at heavily subsidised prices, in addition to the fact that the entitlement is not enough to feed the families for more than two weeks in a month? Or, is it that the grievances of the tribal people, fanned by the Maoists, have little to do with food security? We need find the answers.

(The writer is a former professor of economics at IIM, Calcutta)

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