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India Together: Food for all? Not through the NFSA. - 17 July 2009

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Food for all? Not through the NFSA.
The National Food Security Act proposes to lower ration prices, but also reduce the
quantity of grain that is given to each family. Devinder Sharma suggests a Zero
Hunger programme instead.

17 July 2009 - When Atal Bihari Vajpayee for the first time • Write the author
unfurled the national flag from the ramparts of the Red • Devinder Sharma
Fort in New Delhi, he promised to turn the infamous • Food security
Kalahandi hunger belt in western Orissa into a food bowl. • Send to a friend
If only Vajpayee had made a serious attempt to wipe out • Printer friendly version
hunger from Kalahandi, and follow it up with a nationwide
programme to feed the hungry millions, the BJP wouldn't
have been in a pitiable condition it now finds itself in.

And when President Pratibha Patil reiterated the government's resolve to bring in a National
Food Security Act in a bid to provide every hungry family with 25 kg of foodgrains priced at
Rs.3 a kilo, I certainly felt excited. After all, 62 years after Independence, the government
finally makes a promise to feed the hungry nation. For the 320 million who are officially
categorised as hungry, nothing could be more heartening. And for another 600 million, who
are able to spend less than Rs.20 a day, there appeared to be some hope. And with the new
government barely in the saddle, mandarins in the Food and Agriculture Ministry and in the
Planning Commission have swung into action, working overtime to give shape to the promise
made by Congress in its election manifesto.

But if what I read in the newspapers is any indication, I now have all the reasons to be
worried, rather than excited. If the early signs continue, there will be little hope for the hungry;
instead they will continue to live and die in hunger.

What pains me is to learn that even the Right to Food campaign, which has fought several
battles to ensure that food reaches the poor, is not thinking beyond the PDS to address the
real causes of hunger. There is no reason for the civil society to shy away from the onerous
task by saying that we have to only take care of entitlements. I can understand the
government trying to say so, but that a section of the civil society is also trying to behave like
the government is something that does not auger well for the poor and hungry.

Modelled on failure

Home to the world's largest hungry population, India has a record on hunger that is worse than
that of nearly 25 sub-Saharan African countries. India is ranked 66th among 88 vulnerable
countries in the Global Hunger Index prepared by the International Food Policy Research
institute, and none of its States is categorised under 'low hunger' or 'moderate hunger
category'. And let us not forget, the abysmally low ranking of India in the Global Hunger Index
is despite the PDS. The scheme caters to 65 million families below the poverty line (BPL) and
115 million other families above the poverty line (APL), and is supposed to act as a safety net
for the vulnerable sections of our society.

If you consider each family to comprise on

average five persons, the PDS - on paper -
meets the food requirement of 900 million
people. If this is true, I see no reason why
the country should have the largest
population of hungry in the world. If the PDS
had been even partially effective, there
should have been no reason for Punjab -
and for that matter Kerala, the best
performing States in terms of hunger - to be
ranked below Gabon, Honduras and
Vietnam. Extending the same failed PDS to
more families, or introducing a revamped
PDS is therefore unlikely to make any
meaningful difference to the plight of the
hungry and malnourished.

But this is precisely what the new National

Food Security Act (NFSA) proposes to do.
Modelled along the lines of the National
Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, the
Act does not see beyond the 'rights' of the
poor, and is more or less blind to whether
these rights are being protected by
government schemes. The success of the
If the PDS had been even partially
NREGS itself is still debatable; we all know
effective, there should have been no
is mired in corruption and large-scale reason for Punjab to be ranked below
siphoning-off of funds intended for the Gabon, Honduras and Vietnam.
unemployed poor. But that has not stopped
the NFSA from being drawn on more or less
on the same pattern.
• Starvation persists in Orissa
• Hunger affects attendance
On the price and quantity fronts too, the
proposal is weak. At present, the government
provides 35 kg of food grains, including
wheat and rice, to 65.2 million families
classified as living below the poverty line (BPL). These subsidised rations are made available
at a price of Rs 4.15 per kg for wheat and Rs 5.65 per kg for rice. For the 24.3 million families
classified under the Antyodya scheme (also part of the BPL category), the price of these
grains is further reduced to Rs.2 for wheat and Rs.3 for rice. Thus, what the NFSA proposes
is to provide the grains at an even lower price than in the past, but also in the process reduce
the quantity of grain that is given through the subsidy.

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India Together: Food for all? Not through the NFSA. - 17 July 2009
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the quantity of grain that is given through the subsidy.

By reducing the quantum of grains given, the National Food Security Act would therefore
entail less financial burden on the government by an estimated Rs.5000 crores. And the food
requirement would be drastically reduced from the existing 27 million tonnes to about 20
million tonnes, and the annual subsidy outgo would also be lowered. It surely is a win-win
situation for the government. But how is this going to make an already underfed people able to
eat more? That goal, it now appears, will remain a dream.

Zero Hunger

Feeding the vulnerable sections, and that too in a sustained manner on long-term basis, is
only possible if the government evolves what I call a Zero Hunger programme. I suggest a
5-point programme to ensure Zero Hunger:

Revive agriculture on the lines of sustainability, by restoring soil health and the natural
resource base by bringing in low-external-input, sustainable farming practices.

Provide farmers with a fixed monthly income, incorporating the minimum support price.
For the poorest of the poor households receiving micro-finance, ensure that the
interest rate is reduced from the existing 18-48 per cent to a maximum of 4 per cent.

Disband PDS except for food entitlements for the Antyodya families. Replace this with
Foodgrain Banks at the village level on the lines of the traditional gola system of food
security still existing in Bihar and east India.

Export of foodgrains should be allowed only when the country's total population is
adequately fed.

International trade, including Free Trade Agreements, should not be allowed to play
havoc with domestic agriculture and food security.

All of this is possible, provided the political leadership demonstrates a vision to redesign
agriculture, food processing, rural development, international trade and food security in an
integrated manner. ⊕

Devinder Sharma
17 Jul 2009

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