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Food Security:COUNTDOWN ON REMOVING HUNGER BEGINS?, By Dhurjati Mukherjee, 22 July, 2013 Print E-mail

Events & Issues

New Delhi, 22 July 2013     

Food Security


By Dhurjati Mukherjee


The countdown on Congress’ ambitious “game changer” idea, the Food Security Bill (as of now Ordnance), has begun. Less than a month from now the nation’s capital Delhi will be the first to roll out the scheme on August 20.  Thirteen other Congress-ruled States have been instructed by the party High Command to follow suit and implement it in “letter and spirit”. The fact that the scheme will be rolled out on the birth anniversary of former Prime Minister and Congress leader late Rajiv Gandhi, is indication enough of where the credit is sought. Preparations are already afoot for the ensuing elections in States, other than General election 2014. Additionally, the party appears to have worked out its mathematics and is confident of getting the Ordinance passed in Parliament’s monsoon session beginning August 5, by winning over some parties opposing it. 


However, though the promulgation of the Ordinance that entitles two-thirds of India’s population to 5 kg foodgrains every month at highly subsidized rates is a landmark decision of the its UPA government, it is riddled with conflicting opinions—possible nay impossible, realistic nay unrealistic, genuine nay populist move. Indeed, the endeavour could said to be the biggest-ever Government intervention to fight hunger and malnutrition as around 80 crore people are proposed to be covered – an unthinkable target anywhere in the world!


The scheme, which has been in the news for long proposes to give legal rights to 75 per cent of the rural and 50 per cent of the urban population to buy rice at Rs 3 a kg, wheat at Rs 2 a kg and coarse grains at Re 1 a kg. Further, 35 kg of grains would be given to each Antyodaya family irrespective of number of members. Other beneficiary families would be entitled to 5 kg per member per month at the same price and an allowance of Rs 1000 per month would be given out to lactating women for six months up to two children. 


How will the Centre achieve the target will, however, is the nagging question. The combined rice and wheat production in the country is around 200 million tonnes, of which Government procurement is only about 20 per cent in a normal year. It is now envisaged that the procurement will increase and the buffer stock reduced as the Government needs 61 million tonnes for this programme. Where will it come from and who will foot the bill?  

There may well be a thin silver lining. At least efforts would be made that food grains no longer rot and instead come in handy for the scheme. Recall, the Union Food Minister had admitted June last year that over 8.6 million tonnes of wheat worth Rs 1100 crores was lying in the open, given that the Government had a stock of around 80 million tonnes as against the storage capacity of 64 million tonnes. The absurd situation had even forced the Supreme Court to observe: “If this is the position, then increase the storage facility by constructing godowns in every district…. .If due to lack of storage facility, foodgrains are rotting and getting wasted, then distribute it free to those hungry. The Government could also increase the allocation to families covered under BPL Antyodya Anna Yojana (providing food grains to the poorest) schemes”.   


This apart, States would be compelled to match those who already have schemes in place in the one upmanship game. As of now, Tamil Nadu, Chhattisgarh and Kerala are providing foodgrains at cheaper rates than the price formulated by the Central scheme. Recently, Karnataka has joined in and announced Re 1 a kg rice and 30 kg of rice to each household of three or more members per month.  With Assembly elections due in Madhya Pradesh, Delhi and Rajasthan, other than Chhattisgarh, the respective Governments will need to take this scheme on a war-footing, at least within their electorate.   


If these do, then hopefully the related problem of undernourishment and malnourishment, prevalent in rural and backward districts, would to some extent be addressed. While there are reports of pulses to be made available at subsidized rates, the poor families may be able to purchase these after having saved money on rice and wheat.


The cost to the exchequer, however, needs to be worked out realistically. The Government claims are being questioned by numerous economists. The burden for the programme in the current fiscal, in addition to the budgeted for subsidy of Rs 90,000 crores has been estimated by Edelweiss Research at Rs 10,000 crore, which is quite a reasonable amount. This is simply 0.1 per cent of the gross domestic product (GDP). But once the Bill is implemented, the additional cost burden would rise to over Rs 25,000 crores (or even more) per annum. 


Whatever be the disagreement, it needs to be pointed out that successive Governments had attempted but failed to eliminate the ghost of starvation deaths, which have been continuing to prowl the countryside routinely claiming lives silently – most of which go unrecorded. And it is indeed distressing that the high incidence of hunger remains in our country, which has enough foodgrains, indicating a failure to reach out to the deprived sections of society. One may mention here that China’s economy, which is four times bigger than India, has made remarkable progress in reducing hunger. A year or two back India had been ranked ninth in the Hunger Index while other South Asian countries such as Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Bangladesh were more successful in reducing hunger.   


As is well-known of the three essential things for a common man --roti, kapda aur makaan, (food, clothing and shelter), food tops the list. The Constitution has guaranteed the most precious fundamental right – the right to life under Article 21. But it is shameful that through the 65 years of independence we have not been able to provide the basic to our millions.


Has the time come now? Though some so-called economists have argued that it is a populist scheme and a burden on the exchequer, such rhetoric should not be considered. More so, in keeping in mind the country’s masses – the poor and the underprivileged, for whom Mahatma Gandhi led a crusade throughout his life. Even recently the Supreme Court stated: “Poverty demands affirmative action. Its eradication is a Constitutional mandate”. Will the Bill prove such an action? ---INFA


(Copyright, India News and Feature Alliance)




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