Although it is billed as the boldest effort till date to eradicate hunger, the proposed legislation on food security may offer far less than what the nation needs to overcome chronic hunger and malnutrition among its poor.
A draft of the Food Security Bill — cleared last week by a group of ministers headed by Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee and available with the Hindustan Times — proposes to provide Rs 25 kg of rice or wheat to poor families at subsidized rates, but remains ambiguous on who would be counted as poor.
Rights activists allege the government is “rushing through” the Food Security Bill so it can stop being overseen by the Supreme Court, which has virtually taken over India’s hunger policy in recent years, passing more than 50 orders in response to a public interest litigation commonly called the Right to Food case.
“They are trying to sabotage and undercut this case,” said Colin Gonsalves, the case’s counsel. “The intention is to sabotage the proceedings in the Supreme Court.”
A Supreme Court report — written by former Supreme Court Justice D.P. Wadhwa after nationwide investigations and slated for hearing soon — says every officially poor Indian must receive 35 kg of foodgrain; the Food Bill says they will get 25 kg.
The Wadhwa report says every Indian who earns less than Rs 100 a day is poor and must be eligible for subsidies; the Food Bill only says “guidelines for identification of BPL families would be issued by the Central Government”.
“I would call this (the new bill) a Food Insecurity Act,” said Utsa Patnaik, a professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University and a leading agriculture economist, referring to the Rs 25 kg of wheat per family fixed by the draft Food Bill.
Patnaik said the Congress President’s intentions were noble, but the government was trying to statistically pare the number of poor and foodgrain required, so it could limit the money needed.
Of Justice Wadhwa’s poverty definition, she said “any kind of a fixed money limit makes no sense”, because the value of money keeps changing.
At the heart of the poverty debate is the complex question: Who is a poor Indian?
That depends on whom you ask and the measures you use.
There are about 300 million people living below the World Bank’s poverty criterion of less than $1 (Rs 46) per day, based on calories consumed and other socio-economic indicators.
The number of poor would rise to 370 million if you consider a December 2009 report by Suresh Tendulkar, former chairperson of the Prime Minister’s Economic Advisory Council.
And if you use the estimates from state governments, based on household income, then there are 420 million poor.
The World Bank also estimates that 80 per cent of India’s population or 800 million live on less than $2 (Rs 92) a day, a figure close to the Wadhwa report’s definition of poverty.
“The food bill could go up with the passage of the food security act, though it is difficult to assess the quantum of increase,” said Tendulkar, who used a broader definition, adding spending on health, clothing and education to calories consumed.
The fiscal implication of the bill would vary depending on the poverty estimate chosen.
“The quantum of increase (of the food subsidy bill) would depend on the modalities,” he said. “Given the leakages in the PDS (public distribution system), the food bill could be high, but that would be adequately addressed once the biometric cards (a reference to a smart-card project headed by former Infosys chief Nandan Nilekani) are given out.”