National Food Security Act: Universalisation Vs Targeted Approach

With the government at loggerheads with the National Advisory Council and civil society groups on the question of a universal vs targeted approach to the proposed food security Act, Sachin Kumar Jain presents the case against the targeted approach in a country that provides subsidies and exemptions of Rs 418,000 crore to industry while constantly reducing the entitlements of the poor

India’s first national budget after Independence was of Rs 200 crore. In 60 years, it has grown to Rs 10,00,000 crore. But alas, poverty and starvation continue to thrive as relentlessly as before. We can’t in any seriousness say that the trickle-down theory of economic development has put food on the plates of millions of our hungry brethren. Every night, around 420 million people go to sleep on an empty stomach.

The important point is that while our budget grew 5,000 times its inaugural size, food production grew by a measly 400% over the same period. In rural India today, 23 crore people are under-nourished, and 50% of children fall victim to malnutrition. Every third Indian in the age-group 15-49 years is feeble-bodied. The government is presently grappling with the target of 22.8 crore tonnes of grain production; it needs to reach a target of 25-26 crore tonnes by the year 2015. The situation is so grim that today every fourth malnourished global citizen is an Indian.

Seventy per cent of children under the age of 5 are anaemic; likewise more than 75% of children in 11 of our 19 states. India as a country may have progressed, but her children have not gained anything. Let us consider some important facts.

In 1972-73, per capita per month grain consumption was 15.3 kg; it has since gone down to 12.22 kg. Average per capita consumption was 11.920 kg in 2005-06; it fell by about 2%, to 11.685 kg per person in 2006-07.

While countless Indian citizens are condemned to sleep on empty stomachs, crores of tonnes of foodgrain rot in the country’s godowns. India has the capacity to store 415 lakh tonnes of grain in its godowns, yet 190 lakh tonnes are stored outside under thin plastic sheets. Speedy distribution of this grain could feed many hungry Indians. Despite instructions from the Supreme Court to distribute 35 kg of foodgrain per person, only 20-25 kg per capita is being distributed. This shortfall can be addressed by proper utilisation of grain rotting out in the open. Only lack of political and administrative will can be blamed for such debilitating ennui.

Should food security legislation take the targeted approach or one aimed at universalisation of food security? If food security is considered an integral part of the fundamental right to life, how can the targeted approach even be considered? When exclusion and caste/class/gender discrimination have been key to social, political and economic structures, how can any targeted approach address the hunger and food insecurity situation in our country today?

In the present regime of economic, centralised and corporative capitalist development, the state considers expenditure on food subsidies an unproductive investment. Some argue that we have developed at a pace of 6-8% a year, so most people do not require state assistance for their food requirements.

The Planning Commission of India has taken the stand that it will only prescribe the formula for a targeted National Food Security Act, in which 37.2% of families (estimated by the Tendulkar Committee) living below the poverty line will be entitled to subsidised foodgrain. The report recommends that families spending less than Rs 446.68 or Rs 14.88/day in rural areas, and Rs 578.8 or 19.29/day in urban areas, will be considered ‘poor’.

We need to understand that a targeted approach excludes the most marginalised from receiving basic entitlements and is fertile grounds for huge corruption in programmes like the public distribution system (PDS).

The root of starvation and food vulnerability

From the very beginning it has been taken for granted that industrialisation is the only panacea for development. Our economic policies were so designed that agriculture was categorised as ‘unskilled labour’. Urban areas and industrial enterprises received huge government subsidies, at the cost of agriculture. As a consequence, small farmers and rural labour suffered the inevitable impoverishment.

The Green Revolution, sponsored by big industry, was imposed on India. Under the regime, ‘improved’ seeds were produced that survived only on a strong dose of chemicals, fertilisers and pesticides. During a study on wheat production in five states, including Madhya Pradesh, it was revealed that the average cost of production per hectare, which was Rs 561 in the decade 1981-1990, has risen to a whopping Rs 7,673.70.

As a result, traditional farming suffered an untimely demise; agriculture became a ‘for markets, (controlled), by markets’ enterprise. Small farmers got trapped in debt, and easily cultivable and nutritious coarse pulses and oilseeds became unpopular. Modern, mechanised forms of farming made a huge population of rural labour redundant.

Now there is the scourge of a Second Green Revolution in the form of contract farming and ‘industrial-farming’. In this age of biofuel, cane, corn and other such produce are being intensively cultivated for fuel purposes only. Agriculture is being controlled by MNCs and large corporations. How can food security be guaranteed by grabbing natural resources like water and land from small, vulnerable farmers for the purpose of handing them over to big industries?

We need a universalised National Food Security Act

It is ironical that the Tendulkar Committee tried to give a rationale for empty stomachs. Accordingly, rural folk can survive on an intake of 1,999 calories, while their urban counterparts need 1,770 calories. These conclusions do not match those of ICMR, which stipulates 2,400 and 2,100 calories respectively for our rural and urban populace. In fact, hard and intensive labour requires a minimum intake of 3,400-3,800 calories.

Keeping this in mind, there is an urgent need for universalisation of the Food Security Act. Only then can we begin to think about solving the daunting problem of hunger. The government has accepted the findings of the Tendulkar Committee, formed by the Planning Commission, that 37.2% of our population is below the poverty line (BPL), meaning that almost two-fifths of Indians are forced to go hungry. A study conducted by Arjun Sengupta, Utsa Patnaik and the National Nutritional Monitoring Bureau concludes that 75-78% of our people do not receive adequate food and nutrition.

The poverty line defines and sets the boundaries of deprivation whereby dalits, tribals, single destitute women, the elderly, children, and the disabled subsist on the margins of deprivation. These are fertile conditions for corruption to thrive in, and an environment of non-accountability wherein even people’s basic survival rights are trampled on.

The Government of India has so far been unwilling to reform the public distribution system, and avoids acknowledging the fact that it has been unable to deliver hungry Indians their entitlements. Being extremely vulnerable, people living below the poverty line are unjustly exploited by the forces of an open market. In this depressing scenario, legal guarantee through a universal regime of food security is the only way out. Such a regime will challenge the lethargy of non-accountability and bring about an equity-based social framework wherein agriculture and natural resources receive due attention.

A comprehensive Food Security Bill

The present crisis of food insecurity is due to the consistent exploitation and negligence of agriculture and the rural sector. Even in this age of breakneck urbanisation, two-thirds of our population depend on agriculture whereas its total contribution to India’s GDP is a dismal 17%. At the other end of the spectrum, private enterprises that are a minuscule 1%, stake their claim to one-third of our GDP. Real food security can only be achieved through an entirely new form of polity.

Poverty estimates in India

Since the 1970s, poverty studies in India have been based on ‘poverty line’ expenditure levels. This has been defined as the observed level of expenditure per capita per month on all goods and services, the food expenditure component of which provides an energy intake of 2,400 calories per capita in rural areas, and 2,100 calories per capita in urban areas. Rural energy norms were set higher owing to the hard physical labour most rural workers undertake, compared to the lighter work done by a greater proportion of urban workers. The actual observed average calorie intake in rural India was also higher than that of urban India, from the 1950s to the 1990s, after which, from 1999-2000, the position was reversed.

All those spending amounts below the poverty line are considered poor. While Dandekar and Rath (1971) adopted a uniform nutrition norm of 2,250 calories per head, the Taskforce on Projections of Minimum Needs and Effective Consumption Demand, constituted by the Planning Commission in 1979, did not find the uniform calorie norm suitable and suggested different norms for rural and urban areas.

Using the census data of 1982, the population was divided into 16 groups defined by age, gender and activity, with recommended calorie intakes varying from 300 calories for children below 1 year, to 3,800 calories for a young man doing heavy work. The average norm was derived as a weighted average: 2,435 and 2,095 calories per person respectively for rural and urban areas, rounded down to 2,400 and up to 2,100. These nutrition norms have since been the accepted basis for poverty studies in India.

This is a minimalist definition of poverty, however, since no spending norms are set for essential non-food items such as fuel (for cooking and lighting), clothing, shelter, transport, medical care or education. A household observed to be above the so-called poverty level expenditure satisfies only the nutritional norm and may not be able to access adequate amounts of other necessary goods and services from its non-food expenditure.

The database for estimating poverty has been the National Sample Survey Rounds on Consumer Expenditure, which take the household as the sampling unit and carry out large sample surveys every five years, with smaller samples being canvassed in the intervening years. These reports present the distribution of people and average expenditure by monthly per capita expenditure groups; they also present the calorie intake per capita per diem by expenditure groups, though the latter tabulations have been released after a considerable time lag, in the past. They also note the quantities of food items actually purchased by sample households (as well as farm-produced food items retained for consumption by farmers). These are valued at the prevailing prices, and added to expenditure on non-food items to give the total monthly per capita expenditure (‘Poverty and Neo-Liberalism in India’ by Utsa Patnaik. Accessed on December 9, 2008).

In accordance with the poverty estimates for 2004-5, the Planning Commission noted that poverty in India was dropping. It says the URP-Consumption distribution data of the 61st round yields a poverty ratio of 28.3% in rural areas, 25.7% in urban areas and 27.5% for the country as a whole, in 2004-5. India’s countrywide poverty line is worked out from the expenditure class-wise distribution of people (based on URP consumption, that is, consumption data collected from a 30-day recall period for all items) and the poverty ratio at the all-India level. These estimates have already been challenged by civil society; the Tendulkar Committee showed a significant 10% increase in the figures.

The Planning Commission estimates that in Madhya Pradesh, a rural family spending Rs 327.78 per person per month would be considered poor, while the cost for any urban family would be Rs 570.15. In other words, a person spending anything more than Rs 11 every day in a village, or Rs 19 in an urban area, would not be identified as poor and would not be eligible for relief under poverty eradication programmes. At a country level, the poverty line represents the expenditure level of Rs 356.30 in rural areas and Rs 538.60 in urban areas, per person per month.

Challenges within BPL

Whether non-accountability stems from or is a cause of corruption is debatable. Non-accountability and corruption, while different, are inter-related. It is like the eternal question of which came first: the chicken or the egg. It seems that non-accountability has been shaped in such a manner as to protect corruption.

Corruption does not merely refer to cases of government officials skimming off money for their own benefit. It includes cases where systems do not work well and ordinary people are left with no option but to offer bribes for medicines or any licences they may need.

State-patronised corruption can be seen in situations where the state takes a negative view of marginalised and deprived sections of society and adopts growth-based development policies by sheltering private and corporate sectors and squeezing public resources to provide benefit to them. These policies have little to do with welfare or equality. As a result, 100 corporate families (in a country of 27 crore [2] families) now control 25% of India’s GDP.

Corruption also arises when a public administration official or agent (there should be no agents involved; a public official can deal with funds meant for public use) ceases to behave according to the rules he/she has been appointed to follow. We need to take it further from the individual official, however. What happens when operations are implemented on erroneous polices? For instance, an official may behave in accordance with the rules, but he/she may be acting on the wrong policies. This is almost state-patronised corruption, as the state endeavours to curb the voices of people, in certain cases snatching resources and opportunities from them through bad policies or their unlawful implementation.

While making development policy, the state is to a large extent influenced by rich and powerful sections of society and misuses its power and authority to serve these particular sections. This attitude has lost it the faith of the common man.

Not only does the state offer tax rebates, exemptions and subsidies to the corporate sector, without balancing the interests of poorer sections of society, it is also constantly reducing people’s entitlements. And the poor are further weakened by loopholes in the governance system, which is why they get no justice in the courts, claims for their names to be incorporated in the BPL list are not settled, stolen property is never recovered, complaints against public officials are not recorded…

A classic example of government favouring a particular section of society is its outrageous tax policy in which more than half the owed taxes are waived through exemptions and subsidies. In 2008-09, the central government’s total ‘tax revenue forgone’ was Rs 418,095 crore — about 69% of total tax collection. Of this, waived corporate income tax amounted to Rs 68,914 crore; personal income tax: Rs 39,553 crore; customs: Rs 225,752 crore; and excise: Rs 128,293 crore. Likewise, in 2006-07, Rs 239,712 crore (50.89%), and in 2007-08, Rs 278,644 crore (48.16%) of the central government’s tax revenue was ‘forgone’.

As seen above, exempted customs duty makes up a large proportion of forgone tax (in many cases, import duties are less than the minimum demanded by the WTO). ‘Liberalised’ imports have thus not only destroyed domestic production, they have been paid for at the expense of social sector spending. Equally outrageous is that of the remaining taxes levied, a large proportion is never collected; Rs 90,255.88 crore in 2005-6, and Rs 99,293.04 crore in 2006-7, to be exact.

Despite claims of a high growth rate, poverty in India has increased. The rich have become richer, and the poor poorer, due to the favours bestowed upon one particular section of society that benefits from the country’s economic policies. In the recent financial year, the government provided subsidies and exemptions to the industrial and corporate sector to the tune of Rs 418,000 crore. This sector contributes just 22% to employment, compared to agriculture which provides employment to 67% of the population.
The widening gap between the rich and the poor is also reflected in the BPL status awarded by the government. It was not by mistake that a lower level of expenditure for fixing the BPL line was used. To keep BPL numbers low, calorie intake at the official poverty line was 2,170 calories in 1977-78, 2,060 calories in 1983, 1,980 calories in 1993-94, and 1,820 calories in 2004-05. The present BPL calorie norm permits people to consume just 1,820 calories, whereas to consume the desired norm of 2,400/2,100 calories, the cutoff line for determining BPL status should have been around Rs 700 in rural areas and Rs 1,000 in urban areas. Thus, a large number of rural residents with consumption in the range of Rs 360-Rs 700 have been deprived of BPL status (‘Identification of BPL Households in Rural Poor’, Dr N C Saxena Committee report, page 4-7).

According to the NSSO survey (2004-05, based on the consumption of Rs 356/person/day), 28.3% of families in rural India will be considered poor. If calorie norms are followed, 79.8% of families will count as poor and hungry, deprived of essential commodities and services and falling short of the prescribed 2,400 calories per day.

It is important to note here that a number of exclusionary tools have been incorporated into the estimation methodology itself. For instance, during poverty estimation, locally available produce from forests or agriculture retained for consumption by farmers and tribals are valued at the prevailing prices and added to expenditure on non-food items to give the total monthly per capita expenditure. However, the cost of items and services such as housing, healthcare and education are counted at the lowest price without taking into account current rates of inflation.

Field reports indicate that state governments were unable to follow the BPL numbers decided by the central government and Planning Commission during the identification of families at the village level, as a large section was actually in need and demanding subsidised services and commodities like food, healthcare and housing. State governments were thus politically compelled to cross the ceiling set by the central government. Despite this, the central government continues its rigid stance, making no moves to increase allocations towards poverty alleviation programmes and subsidies. The draft law on the right to food will only cover BPL families decided by the central, not state, government.

In essence, the definitions of poverty are fabricated. They have not been designed honestly to provide protection to the most marginalised but to reduce the government’s responsibility towards deprived sections of society and utilise state resources to benefit the corporate sector and capitalist political ideologies. Just as warfare strategies disrupt enemy food supplies to weaken soldiers, a majority of India’s people are kept hungry so that they are not in a position to fight for their social, economic and political rights. In such a situation, civil society groups are forced to divert their efforts from larger issues to small, general issues like the public distribution system, old-age pension and small scheme-based benefits instead of the fundamental causes of hunger and deprivation.

Why the poverty line should be abolished

Although the Government of India is desperate to push the concept of BPL in all poverty and food-related programmes, the National Advisory Council (NAC) has recommended the use of BPL as an entitlement criterion. This shows that the Indian state is in no mood to apply the universalisation approach to its food and welfare programmes, despite there being evidence that the targeted approach has been a fundamental cause of corruption and exclusion in the last 13 years, since 1997. Instead of marking out families that are below the poverty line (BPL) and above the poverty line (APL), the public distribution system should be strengthened to provide foodgrain to each and every citizen of India.


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