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इंडियन आवाज़     03 Apr 2020 10:54:13      انڈین آواز
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Universal Food Security system needed


 

Need for a Universal Food Security system

By Brinda Karat

A PRELIMINARY reading of the proposals made by the National Advisory Council (NAC) on the Food Security Bill (FSB) points to a disturbing disjuncture on what is being claimed and what the actual implications are of the ten point proposals published in the official press release. 

Issue of Universalisation

The most basic requirement for a legal guarantee for food security must be a universal system of public distribution (PDS) instead of the targeted system. It will be recalled that India had such a system till the advent of neo-liberal policies in the nineties when targeting started. The CPI(M) and Left parties have launched a nationwide campaign for a universal system. This has gained wide popular support because of the blatant injustices associated with a targeted system which has excluded vast sections of the poor on the basis of dubious estimates of poverty. The campaign of the Left parties has found resonance with other parties and organisations who have revised their earlier positions and are now also demanding a universal system.

The government’s response has been at two levels. Firstly, it has stated that it is impractical given the resources required which would be approximately double the present food subsidy. This would amount to around one forth the amount the government itself has given as concessions to the corporates and the rich (around four lakh crore rupees in a single year). A universalised system would still be less than two per cent of the GDP. The campaign of the Left, exposing this hypocrisy, has led to a shift in the focus of the government position. Its spokespersons now say that universalisation is not possible due to the problems related to availability of adequate amount of foodgrains for a universalised system. They say once such availability is guaranteed we can think of such a universal system. On the one hand, to push its export oriented agricultural policy, the government continues to promote the production of commercial crops in place of foodgrains; it refuses to accept the Swaminathan commission’s recommendations for measures to increase food production; and it continues to permit the export of foodgrains — over 14 million tonnes last year. On the other hand, it uses what it claims is “inadequate” food production as an excuse to reject universalisation! 

Foodgrain production has been stagnating and must be greatly expanded but even at present levels it is sufficient for a universal system provided the government puts in place a pro-farmer policy of procurement as suggested by the Swaminathan commission. In the last three years, the annual average production is around 226 to 230 million tonnes. Procurement in the same period is, on an average, around 50 million tonnes. At present 70 per cent of rice procurement for the central pool is from the four states of Punjab, Haryana, UP and Andhra Pradesh and 90 per cent of wheat procurement is from Punjab and Haryana. As for coarse grains, the potential is quite substantial provided the government goes in for wider procurement at fair prices. The present design of decentralised procurement causes problems and losses to the states when they procure for the central pool. But states have indicated their willingness for higher procurement provided the scheme is mutually beneficial. Thus there is ample scope for the government to increase procurement from other rice producing states, as also wheat and coarse grains. The argument that the amount of grain required for a universal system is unattainably high, is premised on a neo-liberal policy approach of rigid self-imposed procurement targets.

However, it would seem that the argument of availability being pushed by the government and the Planning Commission led the NAC to make proposals which may in the long run prove more harmful than helpful. Instead of universalisation, what is proposed is targeting in four different ways.

New Forms Of Targeting

(a) Geographical Targeting: The proposal of the NAC is “initial universalisation in one-fourth of the most disadvantaged districts or blocks in the first year is recommended, where every household is entitled to receive 35 kg of foodgrains at three rupees a kg.” The immediate question that arises is one fourth of the most disadvantaged would be a miniscule number. If it is a drafting error and what is meant is one fourth of the most disadvantaged among all districts, then if the number is around 150 districts of the total of 640 districts, the question arises who will decide? Will it mean that some States, as for example Kerala may be left out in the first year altogether as was done in the National Rural Health Mission, in this case because they do not fit the definition of “most disadvantaged”? Thus the question of identification of “most disadvantaged” may itself be discriminatory against states. This proposal actually introduces a new discrimination among the equally poor in this country on the basis of where they were born and where they live. Say for example an unorganised worker in the construction industry who does not possess a BPL card would in the 150 districts selected be eligible for the entitlement, but if she lives in a village outside the selected districts, even though she may be in the same economic category she will not be eligible. This is legally sanctioned discrimination based on geographical location which is unacceptable and can be challenged in any court of law.

(b) New Category of Socially Vulnerable Groups (SVG): What happens in the other about 490 districts where the majority of the rural poor live? Will the “Initial universalisation” be extended to them over a fixed time frame? The proposal is: “In the remaining districts/blocks there shall be a guarantee (of 35 kg at three rupees) for socially vulnerable groups (SVG) including SC/STs.” This means that unlike in the 150 districts where all households will have access, in the rest of the districts, it will not be universal but targeted for SVGs. Who will be included, apart from the SCs and STs? What will be the percentage of the population involved? For example, will occupation form a basis for inclusion in the SVG category? Will the 77 per cent of the workforce in the unorganised sector having an expenditure power of less than 20 rupees and who are plagued by fluctuating incomes, be included? In any case, by differentiating between the 150 districts and the rest of India, by introducing the category of SVG, the NAC has retained the APL/BPL divide though by a different name and criteria.

The N C Saxena committee report to the Supreme Court had suggested about the “socially vulnerable category” and it is this report which forms the basis for the recommendation of the NAC. It was estimated that the Saxena committee recommendation would be around 50 per cent of the population. As is known, the Tendulkar committee report has recommended 42 per cent of the population to be included. An increase of ten per cent of those to be covered under the Act by no means constitutes universalisation. At best, what it means in actual terms is an expansion of the existing BPL.

(c) Targeting out Others Outside the SVG: The proposal states: “….for others (the non-SVG category) the guarantee will be 25 kg  at an appropriate price.” This is the crux of the issue- a lowered entitlement at a higher price. In fact the issue of differentiated allocations and higher prices for the APL sections is what the Planning Commission has been pushing, except that they at least are more forthright about their aims than the NAC. In a discussion paper for the Empowered Group of Ministers looking into the food security legislation the Planning Commission writes” We can give the APL sections a legal entitlement (later specifically mentioned as 25 kg) but at a non-subsidised price. We should calibrate an APL price linked to MSP (minimum support price given to farmers for foodgrains) in such a way that the annual APL offtake is around 10 million tonnes or so. If there is excess grain availability, as at present, there can be a discount from this price to encourage a larger offtake, if not, the discount should be withdrawn.” It is precisely this utterly cynical manipulation of a popular demand to suit the government’s requirements by the Planning Commission that the NAC wants to project as universalisation. This is unfortunate to say the least.

(d) Category to be Excluded: The proposed law will legally exclude certain categories the details of which are yet to be worked out. If this means income tax paying categories there can be no objection. But more details are required.

1) Time-Frame: The proposed law has no timeframe for implementation throughout the country, even for the proposal to legally ensure 35 kg of foodgrains at three rupees a kilo to SVGs outside the 150 districts. It is stated: “It (the differentiated system) would be suitably expanded to all rural areas in the country over a reasonable period of time.” It has been reported that the NAC thinking is guided by the pattern set by the staggered implementation of REGA. This is an entirely misplaced comparison. Firstly, for REGA, the Left parties had ensured that there was a fixed time-frame of five years with no switch off clause. Equally important, the REGA was a new work-based right that required a certain amount of experience in implementation. The PDS not only exists, but the infirmities in the targeted system in different states have had a negative impact on food security rights. People all over the country are affected by high food inflation rates and consequent food insecurity. Thus there is no basis for staggering as far as an urgent issue of food is concerned. The absence of a legally mandated time-frame makes a mockery of the proposed law.

2) Denial of Existing Entitlements: Instead of building on existing entitlements, the NAC proposals actually exonerate the central government from maintaining existing entitlements

Elimination of Antyodaya: In the press release there is no mention of the Antyodaya category. Elimination of this category would mean that 2.5 crore families would be deprived of their existing entitlement of wheat at two rupees a kg and will have to pay one rupee more. This is completely unacceptable. In fact, if the NAC had to compromise on a basic issue like universalisation, then it could have at least ensured that Antyodaya is extended to more households and categories.

On the issue of pricing for SVG: In many States such as West Bengal, Kerala, Tamilnadu, Andhra Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Orissa, Jharkhand, BPL card holders are getting rice at two rupees a kilo and in some States at one rupee a kilo. These States have also expanded the numbers of BPL. However, the NAC proposals seem oblivious to these entitlements. Surely a central Act must expand on existing entitlements and not detract from them. If the State Governments implement the pricing suggested by the NAC of rupees three, than crores of families would find that the Central Food Security Act actually increases their foodgrain costs. State governments are already facing a severe crunch in resources. This will make it more difficult for them.

3) Urban poor: There is rank discrimination against the urban poor in the present proposals. Urban areas are excluded from the 150 districts. At a time when the conditions of poverty and deprivation of the urban poor are comparable to or in some cases even worse than the rural poor, such discrimination is extremely unfortunate. As far as the identification and categorization of the urban population is concerned, it is clear that targeting is going to be the basis. Households eligible for the 35 kg at three rupees right, are to be identified by criteria developed by the Hashim committee. It is odd that the NAC has accepted the recommendations of the Hashim committee even before the report has been written! Usually, one would like to examine recommendations before accepting them, for which they have to be written in the first place.

4) Other legal guarantees: It is surprising that nutrition schemes like the mid-day meal scheme and the Integrated Child Development Scheme (ICDS) are not included with legal backup in the proposed FSB. The NAC release only states that “nutrition schemes… will be initiated throughout the country.” This sounds more like an election manifesto than a draft proposal for a legal guarantee. Inclusion of mid-day meal schemes and the nutrition based ICDS schemes must be given legal backing as a justiciable right under the proposed law.

5) Non-inclusion of other essential commodities: It is equally unfortunate that the proposals do not include addition of any other essential commodities at subsidized rates. There is no mention of this aspect at all.

 CONCLUSION

The NAC has compromised on the basic issue of universalisation. What they have produced is a differently targeted scheme. This compromise also shows up the circumscribed role of the NAC. If the role of NAC 1 was enhanced in the earlier regime, it was because on some of the issues like NREGA the views of members coincided with those of the Left parties who ensured that the basic universal right under REGA was not restricted by targeting as was officially suggested. Today, the political dispensation marginalises the views of individual members of the NAC, however good their intentions are. The Left will continue its struggle for the universalisation of all basic entitlements including that of food.

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