Citing the disruptions in Parliament, the UPA government decided to promulgate the National Food Security Ordinance on July 5. Under Article 123 of the Constitution, the President can promulgate an Ordinance when Parliament is not in session and there is need for ‘immediate action’. It is possible that the government has crossed a line of Constitutional propriety by promulgating this Ordinance since Parliament is about to convene in a few weeks and there is a similar Bill already pending in Parliament. This issue will be explored more fully in my next blog post. In this post, I propose to examine the key highlights of the Food Security Ordinance and whether it would deliver food security to the citizens of this country.
Highlights of the National Food Security Ordinance
- It entitles upto 75% of the rural population and 50% of the urban population to 5 kg food grains per month at a subsidized rate.
- Rice, wheat and coarse grains will be sold at Rs 3, Rs 2 and Rs 1 per kg respectively.
- Central government shall decide the proportion of the population to be covered in each state.
- State governments shall identify the eligible households in the states.
- Food grains shall be distributed to the eligible persons through the network of fair price shops under the PDS.
- In case the central government is unable to supply food grains to the state, it shall compensate the state governments who have to give a food security allowance to each entitled person.
Key milestones in India’s food security policy
The notion that access to food should be a right has its origin within the UN’s 1966 International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Food security exists when all people at all times have access to sufficient, safe, nutritious food to maintain a healthy and active life.
India’s tryst with food security can be traced back to 1996 when the Supreme Court declared that the “right to live guaranteed in any civilized society implies the right to food”. This was followed by a writ petition filed in the Supreme Court by the People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) Rajasthan in April 2001 against the central government, Food Corporation of India (FCI), and six state governments. The petition contended that the right to food was a fundamental right under “the right to life” provided by Article 21 of the Constitution of India.
Although no final judgment has been given, the Supreme Court has issued several interim orders in the case. On May 8, 2002, the Supreme Court appointed two Commissioners for the purpose of monitoring the implementation of the interim orders (see reports).
Both UPA I and II made food security an electoral promise and entrusted the task of drafting a legislation to the Sonia Gandhi led National Advisory Council (NAC). On October 23, 2010, the NAC made certain recommendations about the basic framework of the Food Security Bill. In response, the Prime Minister set up an Expert Committee under Dr C. Rangarajan to examine the Bill, which submitted its report in January 2011. It stated that it would not be possible to implement the NAC recommendations because of lack of availability of food grains and huge subsidy implications. The NAC however disagreed with it and prepared a draft Bill in June 2011.
The government finally introduced the National Food Security Bill, 2011 in the Lok Sabha on December 22, 2011. It was referred to the Standing Committee on Food, Consumer Affairs and Public Distribution, which submitted its report in January 2013. The discussion on the Bill had been initiated during the Budget session of 2013. The government also introduced a set of official amendments to the Bill, which have been incorporated in the Ordinance that was promulgated recently.
Ordinance: A hit or miss?
Opinion is divided about the need and desirability of the Food Security Ordinance. Some experts such as Jean Dreze and Amartya Sen are staunch supporters of the Bill given India’s malnutrition rates. Others such as Arvind Panagariya, Surjit Bhalla and Abhijit Banerjee have raised certain key issues regarding the need and impact of such a legislation. In fact, the debate on food security has dove-tailed with a larger debate about India’s governance priorities between two renowned economists – Amartya Sen and Jagdish Bhagwati (see here and here for the Sen-Bhagwati debate on re-distribution vs growth).
The criticism of the Ordinance mainly falls into the following categories: (a) purpose of the Ordinance; (b) identification of beneficiaries; (c) mechanism for delivering food security; and (d) the impact on the food subsidy burden.
Purpose of the Ordinance: The basic premise of the Ordinance is that India has a problem of persistent hunger which has led to high rate of malnutrition. Therefore, the government needs to provide the population with subsidized food grains. These premises have been challenged by various experts. Prof Arvind Panagariya, an economist at Columbia University, has recently attacked the notion that India’s child malnutrition rates are higher than that of Sub-Saharan Africa. Blaming the flawed measurement methodology of WHO, he makes a persuasive case that it is improbable that India is ahead of Sub-Saharan Africa in all other health indicators except malnutrition.
Other experts such as Arvind Virmani point out that persistent hunger is a much lesser problem than malnutrition. According to NSSO, in 2004-05, about 2% of households suffered from hunger at some point during the year. This Ordinance only addresses hunger while the focus needs to be on malnutrition which is a problem of a higher magnitude. Given the data on hunger, it is clear that malnutrition exists not so much because of lack of access to food but because of faulty diet. However, the Ordinance only focuses on providing cereals rather than nutrition rich food like vegetable, pulses and fruits. In fact, it may even have the unintended consequence of forcing farmers to grow cereals rather than fruits, pulses and vegetables.
Some experts have also pointed out that one of the major causes of malnutrition is the lack of sanitation. Unless policies focus on addressing this, malnutrition will remain a severe problem (see here, here and here). Others such as Prof Kaushik Basu have suggested that there is need to redesign how the government acquires and releases food on the market.
Identification of beneficiaries: While the Bill had divided the population into three groups (priority, general and excluded), the Ordinance only has two categories (those entitled to subsidized food grains and those who are not). However, this does not do away with the need to identify beneficiaries and thus can lead to inclusion and exclusion errors. According to some estimates, 61% of the eligible population is excluded from the BPL list while 25% of non-poor households are included in the list. The only way to completely eliminate inclusion-exclusion errors is by universalizing the scheme or by having a clear-cut exclusion criteria (see here). However, given the issue of financial burden, the problem of identification may be tackled through the biometric-linked Aadhaar number (see here and here). Basically, Aadhaar will enable the government to authenticate the identity of a person. It may reduce duplicate and ghost beneficiaries (non-existent beneficiaries). However, the success of Aadhaar in weeding out ghost beneficiaries depends on mandatory enrolment. If enrolment is not mandatory, both authentication systems can co-exist. In such a scenario, people will be able to opt out of the Aadhaar system (see here).
Mechanism for delivering food security: The Ordinance legalizes the PDS even though there is a large body of evidence about the inefficiency of the system (see Wadhwa Committee reports, Planning Commission report). These committees have pointed out issues such as targeting errors, low off-take of foodgrains by households, leakages and diversions of food grains to the open market, adulteration of food grains and lack of viability of Fair Price Shops.
Many experts have suggested other alternatives to the PDS such as cash transfer (see here, here and here) and food coupons. There is evidence that these methods have worked in countries such as Brazil (see here and here). Some advantages of these are: reduced administrative costs, expanded choices for beneficiaries, and more competitive pricing among shops. Also, allowing alternate methods could give more flexibility to the states to adopt the mechanism that suits their needs (see here).
Impact on food subsidy burden: According to the government’s calculations, the Ordinance will take the total food subsidy bill to Rs 124, 747 crore in 2013-14. However, there are other costs related to the implementation of the scheme that may not have been factored in such as cost of procurement, storage and transport of food grains. The Bill had given an annual estimate of Rs 95,000 crore as the cost to the exchequer. However, various experts refuted this figure. Their estimations vary from Rs 2 lakh crore to Rs 3.5 lakh crore (see here and here). The basic problem of having a high food subsidy bill is the effect on the fiscal deficit and inflation. Also, given the limited resources available, if the government prioritises one policy, it adversely impacts resource allocation for other policy goals. Therefore, policy choices need to be made based on what would give the most bang for the buck (see here) rather than on populist rhetoric.
It is imperative that the government considers these critiques while framing its food security policy; otherwise the Ordinance would be another lost opportunity to address a key problem faced by the poor.