Amidst all the raging controversy and debates over wasted grains and hungry people, the Supreme Court has certainly created quite a flutter by asking the government to provide foodgrains free to the poor than to allow it to rot. This verdict, although not practically implementable, did show the urgency and in many ways reflected what an average citizen would say looking at the TV reports of rotting foodgrains in storage.
So much so that it sent a Group of Ministers (GoM) into a huddle to immediately spell out what they intend to do. Since the Supreme Court wanted a definite answer by Monday Sept 5, the GoM has come out with the promise of revamping the rotten Public Distribution System (PDS) and has also promised to make an additional allocation of 2.5 million tonnes of grains at below the poverty line price to States. This will be done in the next six months.
I only hope that the Supreme Court keeps up the pressure to force the government to act. It is criminal to let grains rot while millions go to bed hungry. This can happen only in a democracy.
The nation is still not sure as to what to do to ensure household food security. I find the Sonia Gandhi-led National Advisory Council (NAC) still grappling with a way out while the Ministry for Food and Agriculture insisting that providing a monthly ration of 35 kg to 37.2 per cent of the population computed to be below the poverty line is the answer. The issue has got so polarised that the NAC goes on harping on the need to ensure a universal right to food just because it has taken a position which suits its constituency.
The Supreme Court has questioned the justification of a universal PDS. I agree. There is no need for a universal PDS as it would provide a license for the grain traders to make a killing. The Supreme Court would do well to consider the more plausible approach by raising the upper limit of the beneficiaries in the sense that instead of 37.2 per cent, it needs to include 55 per cent of the population (which means following the UNDP estimate of poverty in India) as beneficiaries. This will automatically include all those cases which are on the border line. At the same time, it will also ensure that the National Food Security Act is not a half-hearted attempt.
However, providing 35 kg of grain to the BPL population is simply nothing more than food entitlement. When we use the term Food Security, as in the proposed National Food Security Act, we surely have to look beyond entitlements. And that is where the NAC fails, and so does the Ministry for Food and Agriculture.
Unfortunately, the proposed National Food Security Act is a stand alone programme. It fails to go beyond the quota of ration each family needs to receive. It fails to integrate agriculture with food security. Unless we make a sincere attempt to make a historical correction about our perception of food security in the long-term I fear sooner than later the Supreme Court may have to step in again.
Perhaps one way of looking at food security is to follow what Chhatisgarh has done in the past four years. It is running a right-to-food programme that has impacted the lives of everyone involved: labourer, small farmer, large farmer, middlemen, mandis and the government. Food Security is just the starting point, says a full page report in the Economic Times (Sept 2, 2010).
M Rajshekhar reports under the title New Food Rules: "The myriad ways in which such a welfare programme touches lives and other aspects of the economy have shaped -- and accelerated -- several ongoing trends. These might well be replicated, in varying degrees, as and when the Centre rolls out a national food security programme on similar lines."
The problem is that since Chhatisgarh is a State under the BJP rule, and the Centre is in the hands of UPA-II government, the political configuration is not allowing due recognition for what appears to be a more practical way to ensure food security. I would have been delighted if the UPA-II had invited Chhatisgarh Chief Minister Raman Singh to actually oversee the country's food security programme. I wonder when will democracy mature to a level when cutting across party lines we begin to respect merit and performance.
Chhatisgarh relies on what is called local production-local procurement-local distribution model. Chhatisgrah bypassed its mandis in paddy procurement, instead buying through cooperative societies and procurement centres at the village level. The mandis, though, are unaffected, as the societies have to pay a procurement tax, the revenues from which go to the mandis.
For four years now, Chhatisgarh has been giving 35 kg of grain -- comprising rice and wheat -- a month at heavily subsidised rates to 3.6 million of its 4.4 million households. The ultra-poor pay Re 1 per kg, while the poor pay Rs 2 per kg, against the market price of Rs 12-17 a kg. The ration card is the document that enables this subsidised transfer.
You can read the complete article:
New Food Rules
By M Rajshekhar