Left Parties Dharna on Food Security
|R Ramakumar||August 6, 2012|
Malnourishment is an everyday reality of the underbelly of “shining” India. Dubbed by Utsa Patnaik as the “Republic of Hunger”, India today has a vast majority of population that suffers from poverty and lack of sufficient calorific intake. In 2005-06, almost half the children under age 5 were stunted and 43 per cent were underweight. Among children between 6 months and 59 months, 70 per cent were aneamic. According to Madhura Swaminathan, “no country in the world comes close to India, in the absolute number of people living in chronic hunger”.
These unacceptable levels of malnourishment are not just due to the limited access to, and reach of, health services. They are also, to a great extent, the reflection of extremely low levels of food grain consumption among the population in general, and specifically, women in poor households. Raising the levels of food consumption of the poor people of India is thus a matter of great urgency. The declared objective of the UPA’s proposed Food Security Bill is to address the acute problems of hunger and malnutrition in India. However, in effect, the proposed Food Security Bill strives for just the opposite.
One of the most important events over the last week was a historic 5-day dharna demanding "universal food security" organised by the Left parties in New Delhi from July 30 to August 3, 2012. The five day sit-in protest at Jantar Mantar was attended by thousands of people from all over the country. Representatives of different States presented their experiences and highlighted the adverse impact of relentless food inflation on the lives of common people. There was a unanimous rejection of the draft Food Security Bill presently before the Parliamentary Standing Committee. There was also one day dharna in every state capital during this period. The national media gave zero-attention to this dharna, while giving great importance to the lame Anna-drama next door.
How the Universal PDS became 'Targeted' in India
Universal PDS was established in India in 1965 as part of a national food policy. An important feature of this policy was the integration of food procurement and distribution. The government procured foodgrains from farmers at a procurement price and distributed the grain across the country through the PDS. The policy was formed on the basis of experience that showed the market to be a poor substitute for state action in moving foodgrains.
In the period after 1965, the outcomes of state intervention in the food economy were mixed. On the one hand, the PDS acted as a check against exacerbation of regional disparities in foodgrain consumption (see “Food insecurities”, Frontline, July 17, 2010). On the other hand, the PDS was not serving a large section of India's population and its performance across States, judged by the off-take of grain, varied considerably. Thus, by the 1990s, the challenge was how to extend the PDS to more regions and sections. However, the official policy after 1991 took the PDS on a different trajectory.
In 1997, the government abolished universal PDS and replaced it with targeted PDS (TPDS). The population was classified into above poverty line (APL) and below poverty line (BPL) households. Only BPL households were eligible for subsidised grain. The experience after 1997 shows that TPDS led to the exclusion of a massive section of the poor from the PDS. A widespread complaint from many parts of India after the introduction of TPDS has been the existence of a major mismatch between households classified as BPL by the government and their actual standard of living. As noted in report of the “High Level Committee on Long Term Foodgrain Policy” (chaired by Abhijit Sen in 2002), “the narrow targeting of the PDS based on absolute income-poverty is likely to have excluded a large part of the nutritionally vulnerable population from the PDS.”
Thus, the poor “efficiency” of the PDS under the neoliberal regime was a policy-induced phenomenon. In fact, the critical problem with the PDS today is that it remains narrowly targeted.
The proposed National Food Security Bill
The draft National Food Security Bill, released in September 2011, does not seek a return to a universal PDS. Instead, it disingenuously renames BPL households as “Priority” households and splits APL households into two: (a) “General” households; and (b) the rest, who are totally excluded from the PDS. Five features of the Bill are notable.
- The share of Priority and General households will continue to be based on the Tendulkar poverty lines, which were at the centre of the recent controversy over poverty lines.
- General households will be entitled to a smaller quantity of food grains than the Priority households, at higher prices.
- The strength of the entitlement right for General households will be weaker than for Priority households.
- No more than 75 per cent of the rural households, and 50 per cent of the urban households can come under the ambit of the PDS.
- Schemes such as cash transfers and food coupons are allowed to replace foodgrain entitlements, if the government so wishes.
Clearly, the first four features keep the proposed system substantially close to the existing TPDS. The fifth feature is intended to undermine the PDS and replace it with food coupons or cash transfers.
The misplaced passion with futures trading
The problem of massive exclusion of the population from the ambit of PDS has been exacerbated by recent policies of the Centre related to the encouragement of futures trading in food items. Futures trading has resulted in a phenomenal rise in speculative activity in food marketing, and has seriously threatened the maintenance of food price stability and the viability of state interventions. Right from 1952, futures trading in food items, particularly essential commodities, were banned in India. In 2002, the NDA government lifted all restrictions on futures trading on all primary commodities. It took the high rates of inflation experienced in 2006 for a review of the 2002 decision and the UPA government suspended the trading in rice, wheat, arhar and tur in 2007. The Expert Committee chaired by Dr Abhijit Sen, which was formed in 2007 to examine the desirability of allowing futures trading presented its report to the government in 2008. The conclusions of this Committee, and particularly the supplementary note that the Chairman had appended, clearly bring out the adverse implications of allowing futures trading in agriculture.
The Sen Committee was not able to arrive at a firm conclusion on the impact of futures trading on food prices after 2002 because of the short time period available for analysis. However, the Chairman’s note pointed out that in 14 out of the 23 food items examined, the post-futures prices were higher than the pre-futures prices. These 14 items included essential commodities like rice and wheat. In fact, the prices of rice and wheat fell after the ban on their futures trading in 2007. Abhijit Sen also argued that,
Futures trading is not just a case of simple market failure in maintaining food price stability. It is in fact a more direct attempt, involving corporate players as aggregators of marketed surplus, to undermine the procurement policy of the government and usurp huge profits from grain trade. The encouragement to futures trading would lead to the weakening of the PDS and in some sense, the weakening of the PDS is necessary so that futures market can flourish. The resistance to futures trading, thus, also implies a resistance to protect the PDS as a strong social security net in India.
Proposed PDS reforms and Aadhaar
Scholarly opinion in India today is significantly in favour of a return to universal PDS. However, a powerful lobby of the ruling elite and a section of economists are resisting it. The Aadhaar scheme has become a tool in the hands of this lobby to ensure that universal PDS is never reinstated.
The official thinking on PDS reforms is already available in “Economic Survey 2009-10”. The official thinking on the use of Aadhaar in the PDS is available in a working paper of the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI). Two major features of this new line of thinking are clear. (a) there are massive leakages in the PDS caused by the widespread circulation of “bogus ration cards”; the Aadhaar number can eliminate bogus ration cards. (b) systemic efficiency of PDS can be improved by substituting fair price shops with direct cash transfers. Direct cash transfers can be provided through Aadhaar numbers.
Both these arguments are wrong.
First, while fake ration cards exist in most States, the proportion of fake ration cards across the States is small, ranging from 2 to 13 per cent. Many States have already identified fake ration cards and eliminated them even before the introduction of Aadhaar. The annual report for 2010-11 of the Department of Food and Civil Supplies notes that 208.57 lakh fake ration cards were eliminated across 26 States, as of December 2010. In many of these States, the issue of new ration cards and PDS operations are at advanced levels of computerisation. Some States have successfully introduced hologram-enabled technologies to eliminate duplicate ration cards.
Further, in the operation of the PDS, there are two major sources of leakage. First, there are leakages after foodgrains leave the godown and before they reach the fair price shop. Secondly, there are leakages between the FPS and the customers. Any observer of the PDS knows that the major proportion of leakages belong to the former category, and the latter accounts for only a small proportion.
Secondly, according to the government's plan, the long-term solution is to end the fair price shop model of PDS and shift to direct cash transfers. There is much scholarly consensus on the infeasibility of a direct cash transfer in India (for a set of points, see "PDS in Peril", Frontline, December 2, 2011). However, for the purpose of this note, I shall only quote at length from a very important note adopted by the Central Committee of the CPI (M) in June 2011 (emphasis added).
" Jana Natya Manch performing a play highlighting the impact of price rise on the common people"
Image Credit: Deshabhimani Gallery
It is in this context that the 5-day dharna by the Left parties becomes an important milestone in the struggle for universal food security in India.
The 5-day dharna by Left parties
The major slogans of the 5-day dharna were: "food security for all", "do away with APL-BPL categorisation", "strengthen and universalise the PDS", "end speculative activities on food grains and other essential commodities" and "take immediate steps to address agrarian distress". At the end of the dharna, it was decided to hold September 12th 2012 as the "Food Security Day".
Please see reports on each day:
At the end of the dharna, a memorandum was submitted to the Prime Minister listing the major demands. The memorandum categorically states that the National Food Security Bill in its present form will legalise food insecurity and must be radically changed so as to include:
- Minimum allocation of 35 kg of foodgrains of reasonable quality per family at the maximum price of two rupees a kilo.
- This should be a legally enforceable universal right, scrapping APL/BPL divisions.
- Conditions such as cash transfers should be eliminated.
- The Food Security Bill should be suitably amended and presented in the forthcoming session of Parliament.
Evidently, the struggle for universal PDS enters a crucial phase by September 2012. One hopes that all progressive groups will join the Left parties in this historic struggle to ensure that the neo-liberal objective of phasing out PDS is defeated and the democratic objective of re-establishing universal PDS becomes a reality.
|Agriculture, cpim, dharna, food security bill, PDS, India, Neo-liberalism, Note, Poverty, Economics|
Jallikattu : An Appraisal
തളരുന്ന ജനങ്ങൾ, വളരേണ്ട മുന്നേറ്റങ്ങൾ
ഡോ. ടി. എം. തോമസ് ഐസക്ക്
പരാജിതമായ ഒരു തിരുവിതാംകൂർ ചരിത്രപാഠം
സ്വാശ്രയകോളേജുകൾ: പ്രതിലോമതയുടെ വിളനിലങ്ങൾ
The Genesis and Resolution of Economic-Social-Political Crises
Fredy K Thazhath
RSS has the Tradition of Having Betrayed Our Freedom Struggle
A note of dissent on the Food Security Bill
Supporting the case for a "near-universal PDS" : A letter to the Prime Minister of India
Students for Right to Food
Empowering public sector : An Alternative Path
The 99% are marching towards Delhi
Shop Poverty (at discounted prices)