Satire in the Age of Letters and Technology- more than just a pinch of it.
India witnesses thousands of deaths due to starvation every single day. One-third of the world’s hungry live in India. More than 8 million people survive on less than Rs 20 a day and more than 2 million people in India are undernourished. These statistics deeply upset us- yes, but the saddest part of it all is the fact that it does not really appall us. We as citizens have become extremely passive to this unending tragedy. Although the Lokpal debate and the drama surrounding it ruled the roost during the last couple of weeks, we cannot possibly ignore the debate around the Food Security Bill.
The Food Security Bill gives the right to access sufficient and safe food to the people with special provisions for destitutes, pregnant and lactating mothers, children and disaster affected people. Also, each individual in the priority group households shall be entitled to at least 7kg of grain every month at a maximum price of Rs 3/kg for rice, Rs 2/kg for wheat and Rs 1/kg for millets.
Now, of course there is no doubt about the fact that it is an exceptional bill which seems to be tackling the problem of hunger head on. But the problem comes with regard to the execution of the bill. When we discuss from the point of feasibility, the bill fails according to many. The four major questions asked by the critics of the bill are- How will the required amount of food be produced? How will it be procured and stored? How will it be distributed? And finally, the biggest problem of all, can we afford it?
To accommodate the bill, the production of food grains in the country will have to increase. The bill simply states that the central and state government shall share the financial cost of procuring, storing and distributing food grains to the population entitled to it. There is no strategy to increase the production,no plans to increase productivity or make irrigation more efficient. There is a need to reform agriculture before we put such intense schemes into practice. That is the elementary problem. Also, a point in a particular article that I happened to read said that farmers would stop producing food grains as they would be legally entitled to it by the bill and would prefer to produce cash crops.
Then we come to the problem of procuring. Government procures the food grains from farmers at the minimum support price. The costs incurred by farmers keep increasing but the minimum support price remains almost unchanged. If the minimum support price scheme itself was a good idea then we would not have such a high number of farmers committing suicide. The minimum support price scheme has proven to be faulty year after year. How can the government base this bill on something that has failed so miserably? The problem of storage is a simple and recurring one. We do not have the infrastructure required to store the food grains the year round nor do we have the technology required to preserve them and keep them from rotting.
When we talk of the distribution of food grains, the main mechanism for it in India is the Public Distribution System. There is not one ‘aware’ citizen in India who is not suspicious of this system and weary of it being repeatedly associated with corruption, hoarding and black marketing. If we are to consider the leaky PDS (40% losses) as the main distribution network then we have to be realistic and keep in mind its faults and provide for it. This would include producing more foodgrains and incurring more costs which further deepens the above mentioned problems and also causes delays in the system. The other technique being widely discussed is cash transfers. Now the challenge in this is basic – in a country where people lack not only food but other amenities like shelter, clothing and healthcare can we simply assume that cash transfers can directly be translated to food security? Also, cash transfers are dependent on the Adhaar scheme which itself is not reliable and extremely hard to implement on a large scale basis considering the population of our country. The process itself has only been initiated and will take a long time to spread to the rural areas. Its success is doubtful.
When we read the bill, we can safely predict that the government would have to incur exorbitant expenditure to carry out this bill. It is predicted that to carry out this scheme for 3 years, the amount of money needed would be Rs 6,00,000 crores. That is a large amount of money to invest especially into something which has numerous loopholes and drawbacks. At the same time, Biraj Patnaik (Principal Advisor to the Commissioners of the Supreme Court) very rightly said, “We were not thinking about fiscal constraints when we were distributing 2G spectrum. We are not thinking about fiscal constraints when we hosted the Common Wealth Games. Surely, fiscal constraints in the second fastest growing economy in the world cannot come in the way of a country dealing with hunger.”
But, as with most things it is easier said than done. K V Thomas ( Minister of Agriculture) has surely downplayed the financial aspect but are we as taxpayers ready to invest in the Food Security Bill? On what basis are priority households to be distinguished? Will such a system backfire and allow corruption to thrive on it? Will the grains reach the people? What methods are to be used to ensure food grains do not rot in warehouses? And in the matter of distribution, the government must concentrate its efforts on either the PDS or the Adhaar scheme as in an effort to do both, it might do none. The Food Security Bill on paper is excellent but in practice it can be an entirely different story.