Forget Grexit, austerity is showing up closer home. India is looking to limit the number of people eligible for cheap grains under the landmark National Food Security Act, sparking criticism in a country that still has the second-largest number of hungry people globally.
Critics say the Modi government’s fine-tuning of major social programmes, including food handouts, was aimed at trimming spending. Recent changes in the subsidised food distribution programme -- the largest in the world -- seek to shift part of the burden to states, they say.
The food ministry has made use of an executive provision, known as the Public Distribution System Control Order, to cap the overall number of people who can enroll for subsidised food grains for now.
New beneficiaries can be added only after the next general census, seven years away, even though population expands at a rate of 34 new Indians every minute.
The government is also looking to gradually dismantle a category of 24 million poorest “last-mile” families, called Antyodaya households, who qualify for slightly higher entitlements. The revised food order says once such a household moves up on the income ladder, then no new Antyodaya households can be added in its place.
If no new child from a poor family is to be added in the next seven years, as the new order stipulates, then gains made in the fight against hunger could be frittered away, according to experts.Malnutrition is by far the biggest contributor to child mortality in India. According to the Lancet medical journal, malnutrition in the first two years is irreversible.
Section 3(3) of the new order states: “Provided that when an Antyodaya household becomes ineligible on account of migration outside the State, improvement in social or economic status, death, etc., no new Antyodaya household shall be identified in that State and the total number of Antyodaya households shall be reduced to that extent.”
States can of course increase the number of beneficiaries if they have to, provided they bear the costs.
India’s food subsidy constitutes 51% of its total subsidy spending. That’s quite large as a proportion, a government official said. The food subsidy portion appears large -- as a proportion of the total subsidy – partly because spending on fuel subsidy is shrinking.
“The gap if any can be made good by states because they stand to gain 10% increase in revenues under the new devolution regime,” an official said, requesting anonymity.
Analysts say the logic was flawed since the food Act stipulates that the handouts as prescribed under its provisions, must be provided for by the Centre. Secondly, states don’t get an instant jump in their revenues because of recent recommendations of the Finance Commission, which offer greater share of revenues for states.
The new rules are controversial since they bypass Parliament and are in contravention the National Food Security Act, say right to food advocacy groups. “This amounts to curtailing provisions under the Food Security Act,” said Biraj Patnaik, the Supreme Court-appointed advisor on a right-to-food case.
The social implications of the changes merit attention, analysts like Patnaik say, given the prevalence of widespread hunger, malnutrition and maternal deaths.
According to the UN Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO)’s 2015 Hunger Report, India falls among “moderately high” malnourished countries, but still has the second-highest estimated number of undernourished people in the world.
India saw a 36% decline of undernourished people from 1990-92 to 2014-16. “…the extended food distribution programme also contributed to this positive outcome. Higher economic growth has not been fully translated into higher food consumption, let alone better diets overall, suggesting that the poor and hungry may have failed to benefit much from overall growth”, the FAO report states.
The food security legislation gives cheap handouts to two-thirds of Indians 5 kg of rice or wheat at Rs 3 and Rs 2 a kg every month on an individual headcount basis. For the mostly destitute Antyodaya households, the Act retained the earlier household approach as well as the allocation of 35 kg foodgrains for the entire family.
The government’s Socio-Economic Caste Census has already faced criticisms for leaving out about 40% rural households under a so-called automatic exclusion criteria.