Saturday, December 24, 2011

Article on National Food Security Bill 2011 :: Take It or Leave It: Hunger or NFSA?

Sachin Kumar Jain
Writer is a activist closely associated with Right to Food Campaign
Contact: Vikas Samvad, E-7/226, First Floor, Opp. Dhanvantri Complex, Arera Colony, Shahpura, Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh

Amidst the cacophony around the Lokpal Bill, National Food Security Bill 2011 has been tabled in the Loksabha. Whatever the Government of India has fleshed in the National Food Security Bill is actually in pursuance with the constitutional obligations (section 47) and obligations under various international conventions. More than that, it has been done inin the larger context of prevailing food and nutritional insecurity in one of the fastest growing economy of the world. Still it hashas not gone the whole hog to hit the problem per se. Rather, it is just a beginning to register the fact that hunger is a real cause of concern. The National Food Security Bill, in its present form, is not adequately endowed with a vision to address the very structural causes of Food and Nutritional Insecurity in India. Three basic issues are at hand: 1. The Bill dwells on targeting vis-à-vis universalisation; re-invoking the contentious BPL-APL battle-lines (‘Priority’ and ‘Non-priority’ households). The intended benefits will be given to the people based on these categories. It is a quite well-known fact that the successive Governments have failed in identifying the poor, and as a result, majority of our population continues to live with hunger in various forms. In such a grim scenario, the Government should be talking about Universalisation, which is an integral part of Fundamental Right to Life. 2. The Bill provides for a supply of 7 kg per month of subsidized food grains per person in the ‘priority’ households, whereas the monthly requirement of a person is 14 kg to fulfil the basic food requirement. 3. The proposed entitlements do not deal with the problem of nutritional insecurity. In India, people have suffered undernourishment majorly due to Protein and Fat deficiency. Hence to cope up with the problem, Government should have added pulses (to compensate for protein) and edible oil (to replenish fat), as the preamble of the Bill also mentions: “… the Supreme Court of India has recognized the right to food and nutrition as integral to the right to life …”

But the most important is to answer the questions being raised by the Anti-NFSA sections of the society as well as in the Government. Today, development is only understood in the narrow terrain of economic growth and Indian policy makers seem to be haplessly infatuated by GDP numbers and their growth thereby. But they have not stepped beyond their narrowly familiar paradigm and taken a genuine interest in the general improvement in living standards and enhancement of people’s well-being and freedom! How can Indian polity accept such a growth trend wherein 70 percent of the total GDP is directly under the control of 8% of India’s elite? Growth is important, because it helps create a conducive environment for the welfare & betterment of the people. We can not, however, accept a growth trajectory that curtails the opportunities for common people, grabs common property & natural resources for short term gains. While the India's economy has been growing at a pace of 6 to 9% in the last 12 years, under-nutrition among the children has gone down by a trifling 1% in the 9-year interim of 1998-99 to 2006. Should we accept a mere token 0.1% decline in childhood hunger per year?

Growth story has a flip side as well. The present level of malnutrition results in 2 to 3% decline in the GDP. It causes delay in education, triggers learning disabilities; it affects the overall lifelong physical and cognitive development of children right from the conception stage. Every year, we lose 1.3 million children, who do not celebrate their fifth birthday and die due to under-nutrition, lack of care and unavailability / inaccessibility of basic health care. One of our neighbouring countries weighs up its development with a Happiness Index. Now as the developed world, who has enjoyed the highest level of capitalism, is being devastated by a debilitating economic crisis and as the citizens of many countries are protesting against the prevalent economic policies, India should also learn and have a re-think that whether the peoples’ well-being should be its priority, or just creating a tiny island of opulence for a handful of people.

I just ask one question - Do we know that we contribute towards 40% of world's maternal, neonatal, infant and child deaths? We have world's half of the under-nourished kids? We have 54% women suffering from anaemia? Don’t we want to remove this blot from our face? I don’t think we would like to, should or can continue to do injustice with our people. We will have to end this national variety of colonialism, where the corporate world rules over our farmers and labourers, traders indulge in the business of education and health services, and keep people deprived of the very basic services in the name of Growth. Of course, faster growth generates resources but these resources must be used for the well-being of the people at large. This surplus should not be furthered for subsidising the corporate.

I take my argument further by citing the fact that over 1.6 million hectare land has been transferred for the real-estate and industrial development purposes, natural forest cover is rapidly declining, water resources are drying up and getting contaminated, agricultural production cost has gone up by 189 percent in the last 20 years, but our small and marginal farmers never found the policy interventions on their side in order to have any kind of structural protection against the marauders of the open market. Here, we are talking about a growth scenario, wherein India was in need to create employment opportunities for its 45 millions but it could provide employment to only 2.1 million people. All these shortfalls are the basic cause of hunger. Prof. Arjun Sengupta in his report on unorganised sector mentioned that 77% of the population survives by spending Rs. 20 a day; while on the other hand, NNMB figures show that 76.8% population do not receive prescribed norms of nutrition! We need STRONG POLITICAL COMMITMENT; otherwise ‘Growth in Hunger’ will be our leitmotif.

In these two decades of our new economic policy (NEP), one thing has come out very clearly that 90% of the population could not get any benefit out of, or due to it. They somehow survive on the fringes of our political economy.

Measures to end hunger should not be delayed any more by saying that we are facing market crash? Or we are in recession. We must know that, economy may also be collapsing of surmounting hunger wherein people are no more in a position to contribute in the stabilising internal economy.

Our country is being run by the economists, but they sound so useless and illiterate OR just trying to be illiterate! Have you heard ever any economist (from planning commission, PMO or RBI) has ever said publically that GoI is doling out almost Rs. 6.22 lakh crores as tax-revenue subsidy in the financial year 2011-12, which is registered as Taxes Foregone and it counts for 65% of Government's total revenue. Last year this figure was Rs 5.36 lakh crores. A total of Rs 23 Lakh crores in 6 years has been stashed into the corporate world’s billionaire coffers. No one has asked why? In contrast, the agriculture subsidy has been converted into direct loans to farmers, petrol has been handed over to market, public expenditure on basic services like health, education and water are reducing. Who is toying with the India's balance sheet? Why there is so much hue and cry on NFSA expenditure?

Already we are spending Rs. 67,310 crores as food subsidy, and there will be only a tiny increase of another Rs. 30,000 crores, just a trifle 4% of the taxes which being usurped by the corporate-economists-government nexus. Simply feel the positive impact of this humane expenditure. It will preserve human values of India, it will feed those 77 crore humans sleeping hungry at present. Government of India will only be giving a subsidy of Rs. 1188 per person per year or Rs 3.25 a day. BUT we have ministers, economists, policy makers and consultants', who just do not want the State to do so! Even our prime minister also is not very happy with the idea.

Actually, this is an outcome of welfare politics, which has become very imperative in last one decade or so. we have been running Integrated Child Development Services and having a plan to spend Rs 80000 crores in next five years; Mid Day Meal scheme is already in place. We have a 17 crore population of children under-6, 45% of them are under-nourished but we barely spend Rs. 1.62 per child per day on their growth and nutrition. The matter of fact is that private food market will lose some profit due to this legislation and there will be a control over inflation; which is just not acceptable to the market. Just take the example of second and third quarter of 2011-12, while the growth rate came down to 6.8%, food inflation also declined from 16% to 1.7%. So, the indications are getting clearer.

There is an argument that it is better for the government to focus on productivity enhancement rather than focusing on dolling out subsidies at the expense of tax-payers! But these two things are not mutually exclusive; they are complementary to each other. Let us understand one thing; India is not a food deficit country, we produce surplus food grains, we throw it in the sea, we export it, but due to various reasons, it does not reach to a large number of our hungry people. If this continues, the argument of productivity will not hold any water. Yes, this is a fact that we still have one of the lowest per hectare production, but this is also the time to think on the adverse impact of technologies on agriculture.

A part of this discussion is linked to Public procurement and MSP. If government stops subsidising agriculture, profit makers will benefit and consumers will have to pay high prices. Just take the example of pulses. We pay Rs. 36 per kg as MSP to the farmer for Tuar dal, but the market price was Rs. 110 some time ago. There is an urgent requirement to ensure maximum public procurement, which can only be done and applied through Public Distribution System. If you stop procuring food from the farmer, farmer will suffer till he/she dies. Second aspect deals with the policy perspective. For last 20 years, the per capita food production in India is stagnant around 460 grams per person per day; pulses are the key source of protein, but the availability has gone down from 70 grams per day in 1960s to 42 grams in recent times. We adopted new technologies: hybrid seeds, chemical fertilisers and pesticides in order to increase agriculture production. Punjab sacrificed its community techniques and blindly used high quantity of chemicals, which has finally now resulted in a heavy decline in soil fertility there. Overall, the present draft of NFSA 2011 does not provide any revolutionary thing; it is just modest. We have to think, and decide - who our priority is.

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