‘Given that economic growth requires manpower and brainpower, it seems plausible, however, that whenever that spark occurs, it is more likely to catch fire if women and men are properly educated, well fed and healthy, and if citizens feel secure and confident enough to invest in their children… it is also probably true that until that happens, something needs to be done to make that wait for the spark more bearable.’
In their engrossing new book, Poor Economics: Rethinking Poverty and the Ways to End It, Massachusetts Institute of Technology economists Abhijit Banerjee (a columnist on this page) and Esther Duflo note that a successful social policy may be a crucial step towards “that elusive takeoff”. The UPA believes the food and health propellant for takeoff is the national food security bill, 2011, the blockbuster legislation of its second term, much as the rural jobs programme was during the first.
Written by the National Advisory Council (NAC), the UPA’s think-tank on social issues, the original version of the bill is a carefully crafted, well-meaning proposal, written with rare empathy to bring into law a new fundamental right to food. Over 56 pages, the NAC draft explores legal solutions to everything from homelessness to malnutrition. Forwarded by UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi to the government on July 2, after much prior friction with an expert committee set up by the prime minister, the draft is now at the centre of fresh tension.
Told to vet the NAC draft and send it to a group of senior ministers so it could be submitted to Parliament next month, bureaucrats in the food ministry have cut its length by about half. But this isn’t about careful editing. It seems more like a hasty, hack job that reveals the government’s reluctance to take responsibility for the new approach. The food ministry, under pressure from the finance ministry, has deleted entire pages devoted to those on the margins of India, including people who live with starvation and die from it, achieving maternal and child welfare, a critical aspect of any attempt to make a sickly nation healthier; the recognition of single-women households and an independent enforcement authority.
Essentially, the food ministry has reduced the food bill to an expanded dole of subsidised food. “It is a caricature of the notion of the right to food,” said the bill’s disappointed convenor of the NAC’s group on food security, Harsh Mander, when I asked him for his reaction.
Now, you may argue whether Indians need a right to food. First, this will be an expensive law. In 2009-10, India spent Rs 70,000 crore as food subsidy to distribute cheap food through the public distribution system (PDS). You won’t find that figure in government accounts because Rs 10,000 crore of this is a hidden subsidy — undeclared cost overruns. According to the latest back-of-the-envelope calculations, India will have to spend an additional Rs 19,000 crore as food subsidy if the NAC proposal is accepted. If the ministers accept the food ministry proposal, India will still need to spend an additional Rs 14,000 crore.
Second, many ask if this money would be better spent on infrastructure development, which would further swell the economic tide and lift more boats out of the water.
Third, does it need to be in food? There are compelling arguments — and the government is certainly leaning towards — cash transfers.
Fourth, how will a new law will be implemented in a country notorious for poor implementation of existing laws (as the World Bank noted last month, 60% of PDS grain does not reach the poor)?
Note that the UPA’s blockbuster first-term legislation, the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS), delivers at best half of its promised 100 days of work — in some states it’s as bad as 15 days — to those who need it and is beset by corruption. To address PDS leaks and administrative failures, the NAC proposes lines of watchdogs, including some with judicial powers to punish erring officials (the food ministry has deleted these provisions).
I asked MIT’s Banerjee what he thought of the fracas over the food bill. He said the food ministry did not want a grievance mechanism. “It is hard not to be suspicious about this, given what we know about the PDS system,” said Banerjee. “On the other hand, I can see what the ministry is worried about. A lot of what goes wrong in the PDS system is stuff that happens at the level of the ration shop — tens of thousands of them. Who wants to be legally liable for each failure of this system?” He also said it would be “extremely hard” to enforce the NAC’s extra provisions for priority groups, such as single-women. With so many abandoned women, who is to say someone is single, or not?
As for the money, Banerjee said: “If this is to be our one anti-poverty programme, then I do not see why it should not be generous.” I might add that already existing spending, for instance on old-age pensions and school meals, could be integrated with the right to food, or whatever avatar it achieves.
In a country where more than 400 million people live below the official poverty line, or less than Rs 60 a day and nearly half of all children are malnourished — two decades of growth have only managed pare this by about 1% — State intervention is inevitable. Whether you agree with its approach or not, the NAC lays out a new, innovative route. The danger with the food ministry’s signposts is that they may lead to a road India has already travelled — and reached nowhere.