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Food Security Act: Implementation, not intention, holds the key
By Sudhirendar Sharma

India may soon have a right-to-food Act to ensure that everyone in the country gets sufficient food to eat. But will this Act fulfill our long cherished dream to feed the hungry or end up as another failure like Public Distribution System ?

Much before resource-rich US could do it, India has already embarked on it. It is proposing a National Food Security Act which will ensure that no one goes to bed hungry. Estimated to cost the exchequer an additional Rs 50,000 crore, the Act will make right-to-food for the poor a legal obligation on the State. The Act proposes that each month, the Below Poverty Line (BPL) families will be entitled for 25 kg of grains (wheat and rice) at Rs 3/kg. Read it along 100 days of assured employment under National Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) and it would seem that poverty will soon be shown the door!

I'm no cretin to go against a legislation that addresses the much desired household food security, but there are compelling reasons for my being so. Haven't we lived with the incredibly leaking Public Distribution System (PDS) all our lives? Though PDS has been one of the most inefficient and corrupt systems but we have carried on with it for decades. It was only in 2005 that the Planning Commission reported that the vast network of 400,000 fair price shops delivered only 42 per cent of grains meant for the BPL families.

Not only have leakages and pilferages been consistently overlooked, no one has been held accountable for siphoning off 58 per cent of the subsidized food meant for the poor year after year! And now we have the new legislation that aims to replace the existing PDS system. No eyebrows have been raised because the government accentuates its denial mode with a misplaced conception that 'changing the package may alter the contents'. The history of ineffective implementation of anti-poverty schemes will soon have another chapter added to it!      

Though PDS has been one of the most inefficient and corrupt systems but we have carried on with it for decades.

It will be erroneous to assume that the systems have been designed on self-correction mode. Had that been any different, Rahul Gandhi would not have reiterated what his father Rajiv Gandhi had said two decades ago "that only 5-10 per cent of planned funds reach the needy people". The much-hyped rural employment guarantee scheme has been a grim reminder. However, serious anomalies in cash transfer under the scheme have been pushed under the carpet as minor aberrations.

That the much-hyped National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme tilted the 2009 poll verdict in its favour is reason enough for the ruling alliance to stay protective of its flagship scheme. However, if the unaccountable system is allowed to perpetuate itself under the new food distribution framework, the accumulated losses would create a big hole in the already precarious government finances. The irony is that public resources are being used to grease corrupt service-delivery system.

As the final details of the ambitious Food Bill are being drawn, the contentious issue yet to be resolved relates to the actual number of BPL families. The Planning Commission is stuck with a figure of 66 million whereas the states have issued 107 million BPL cards. Recent report by the Supreme Court-appointed N C Saxena panel has argued that BPL status be drastically revised upwards to 120 million or at least 50 per cent of the rural poor.

With millions at stake, any shift in numbers could add extra burden to the exchequer. The irony is that the number of poor in any country is a political matter, often used to open new electoral opportunities. With an eye on the next general elections, the ruling alliance would want to consolidate a large vote bank through the food guarantee scheme. But the uncomfortable crucial question is whether its first tenure has made more people poor or is there a more prosaic explanation to India's grim poverty that the government hasn't understood?

With symptoms, not system, being the political order of the day, mistaking the wood for the trees is evident in government's rush for a food security legislation. That poor agriculture growth rate, fluctuating global food prices and impending climate change are casting its shadow on the farm sector have largely been ignored. Paradoxically, the proposed law assumes that the food grain harvest will keep pace with population growth and that the State will have unlimited resources to keep subsidizing food to the poor.      

For the proposed food security law to succeed, the challenge lies in correct targeting of the needy while creating a transparent and accountable system in food distribution.

If the PDS experience is anything to go by, long-term food security lies beyond issuing food coupons. Improving agriculture by developing supportive policies that augment small farmers' income through improvement in the productivity of rain-fed agriculture and through value-addition in niche crops holds the key to addressing rural food insecurity. Further, habitations of small farmers and forest-dwelling communities must be protected from the standpoint of creating in situ carbon sinks as also for absorbing growing labour force.

The political commitment to the idea of right-to-food is undoubtedly commendable but any disincentive to small scale farming on account of intended food security would contribute to increased rural migration. Agriculture absorbs 62 per cent of the country's labour force. Investments ought to be made in agriculture such that food security is achieved at the local level and the workforce remains gainfully employed at the farm. Like right-to-information, the law must be universal such that all citizens can exercise their right-to-food under exigent conditions.

Household food security is undoubtedly significant at this stage but for the proposed food security law to succeed, the challenge lies in correct targeting of the needy while creating a transparent and accountable system in food distribution. Investment in improving agriculture growth should be made a concurrent part of the new law. Without doubt, a country that has been languishing way down at 96 among 119 developing countries on the Global Hunger Index cannot wait longer to have an effective food security law enacted.

Disclaimer: The views expressed above are personal and do not necessarily reflect the views of d-sector editorial team.

Sudhirendar Sharma  |  Environmentalist, development analyst and columnist  |  sudhirendarsharma@gmail.com

Dr Sudhirendar Sharma is an environmentalist and development analyst. Formerly with the World Bank, Dr Sharma is an expert on water, a keen observer on climate change dynamics, a critic of the contemporary development processes. A prolific writer, he was a senior correspondent with India's leading weekly, India Today, and the science editor for The Pioneer newspaper. He holds degrees in agriculture and environmental science and lives in Delhi. He is attached with the Ecological Foundation.

Write to d-sector  |  Editor's Note

Corruption Watch

The bad news is that corruption has not only sustained but has grown in size and stature in the country. With scams being a regular feature, seventy per cent respondents in a survey have rightfully opined that corruption has continued to increase in India. One in every two interviewed admit having paid a bribe for availing public services during last one year. Transparency International's latest survey reveals that the political parties top the chart for the most corrupt public institutions, followed by police force and legislatures. No wonder, India continues to make new records on the global corruption arena!

The shocking revelation is that the health and education sectors haven't remained untouched by this phenomenon. With 5th and 6th positions respectively for these sectors on the public perception chart on corruption, corruption has crept insidiously into these sectors of hope for the masses. With bureaucracy being fourth in the list of corrupt institutions in the country, corruption seems to have been non-formally institutionalized with little hope if public services would ever be effective in the country. With economic growth having literally institutionalized corruption, are we now expecting corrupt to be socially responsible - a different CSR.

Poor. Who?

Not giving 'aid' to India is one thing but calling it 'rich' is quite another. If one in three of the world's malnourished children live in India, what does average daily income of $3 indicate? It perhaps means that there is a relative decline in poverty - people are 'less poor' than what they used to be in the past. But having crossed the World Bank arbitrary threshold of $2 a day does not absolve the 'developed' countries of their obligation to part with 0.7 per cent of their Gross National Income in development aid. Should this three-decade old figure not be revised?  

An interesting debate in UK's House of Commons delved on future of development assistance by the British Government. While prioritizing limited resources has been a concern, there has been no denying the fact that development aid must be guided towards tangible gains over a short period of time to start with. There are difficult choices for elected governments to make - should they invest in long-term primary education or in short-term university scholarships? Which of these will bring gains and trigger long-term transformation in the society. As politicians continue to be divided on the matter, poverty persists!!   

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