The Indian Parliament makes history by passing a law that guarantees food provisioning by the State to all persons who are potentially food insecure in the country. Public opinion in India, however, continues to be deeply divided about the merits of the law for food security.
One set of commentators cautiously welcomes it as a long-delayed but potentially beneficial statute, as for the first time it legally guarantees all people in the country food to enable healthy and dignified survival. Their concerns are that the law does not go far enough: it is not universal, neglects agriculture, ignores the starving and destitute, and fails to guarantee clean water, sanitation and healthcare imperative for nutritional security.
At the other end, many commentators are profoundly dismayed by the law. They do not deny that poor people in India deserve a better deal. But they are convinced that the food law is disastrously ill-conceived: wasteful, populist, profligate, unaffordable, and non-implementable.
Most of these criticisms focus on the PDS segment of the law that guarantees cheap rice, wheat and millet to 66% of the population. They do not comment on many equally significant elements of this law, such as near-universal maternity entitlements, universal feeding for young children, and school meals.
Those who worry that the law is wasteful and populist suggest that this scale of public money would far better be invested in public infrastructure, education and healthcare than distributing cheap food to large populations.
However, it is important to see this not as a mere undeserving dole, but rather as an investment in ensuring that the working people of this country are well-fed, which is critical both for their productivity and their morale.
Every second child in India is malnourished, which means that the brains and bodies of every second young adult are not developed to their full potential.
There is no disagreement that for poverty to end, far more needs to be done than simply feeding people. But while all of this is being done, the child’s brain and body is forming today, and it is the duty of a caring state especially in a rapidly-growing economy to ensure that while more lasting solutions are crafted and implemented, people today do not suffer from preventable hunger.
Those who regard the law as profligate populism point also to the high cost of the food law. It can be no one’s claim that ensuring food security in a country of a billion plus people cannot come cheap, but are the costs really runaway and irresponsibly high?
It is true that the cost of the law has officially been pegged at R125,000 crore. Critics suggest that such high spending for food ‘hand-outs’ or doles will be disastrous for the economy, more so in times of economic crisis, leading to even higher public deficits, and inflation, which will harm everyone including the poor.
However, the additional burden on public expenditure imposed by expanding PDS coverage is around R25,000 crore: the rest was being spent anyway by government.
Also, it is not right to assume that the pot of public revenues is fixed and given, therefore if we spend more on food, we will either have to pull back on other important expenditure or raise deficits.
The third option is to raise more taxes, and India has a low tax to GDP ratio, with considerable scope for higher tax efforts. Also, too much of our taxation is indirect, burdening the poor unfairly. Further, we need to demand greater integrity in India’s tax effort, rather than a moratorium on more public spending for the poor.
And finally, we need to weigh the costs of not making these investments, the enormous costs of hunger, preventable diseases and deaths on the morale and productivity of several hundred million working people and growing children.
The third cluster of criticisms of the food security law is that it is not implementable, that state administrations demonstrably lack the capacity to actually deliver on the promises of the law, evidenced by even official studies which confirm enormous leakages of subsidised PDS grains into the black market.
There is no doubt that runaway corruption and inefficiencies greatly cripple states’ capacity. But it is important to remember that both corruption and its debilitating impacts on governance are not restricted to programmes for the poor.
They apply also to defence deals, for instance, or to urban infrastructure development (as the Commonwealth Games scandal demonstrated), or to the allocation of natural resources like coal mines.
But it is no one’s case that because of corruption, we should place an embargo on defence purchases, or on developing our cities, or on mining coal. Then why should we selectively apply corruption as a reason to veto investing public resources only for programmes for the poor?
It is hoped that the pressures created by the food security law, and democratic mobilisation around it, will place pressure for incremental improvements in the PDS over time in all states, in the way that the MGNREGA, the RTE and the RTI laws have done.
It can be no one’s case that states are still fully geared up to deliver the rights to work, education or transparent governance, but the creation of legal rights by statutes generated unprecedented pressure on and central and state administrations to greatly improve their delivery systems over time.
The same can reasonably be expected to happen with regard to the right to food.
The experience of states as diverse as Chhattisgarh and Tamil Nadu demonstrates that, given political will, the leaky and creaky PDS can be credibly fixed.
The enormous reservoirs of continued preventable suffering of millions of the poor should convince even those convinced about the efficacy of markets to ultimately end poverty that at least in the medium term there is no substitute for large State investments to ensure that all people have work, food, education and healthcare.
(Harsh Mander is Director, Centre for Equity Studies The views expressed by the author are personal)