Food Security or Food Insecurity: The Bill Imbroglio
by K P Prabhakaran Nair on 19 Dec 2011 7 Comments

There is a lot of discussion going on currently in the country on the Food Security Bill, but, the Food Security Bill is gathering dust in Parliament. It is better to call it a Food “Insecurity” Bill rather than the Food Security Bill as no one seems to appreciate the urgency of enacting a fool proof Food Security Bill that is the most vital need of the day.

It is a shame that the UPA government cannot push through this legislation that affect the livelihood of millions of poor and hungry in the country. The latest development is that the Ministry of Agriculture, under Sharad Pawar, has raised objections to some of its provisions. This only shows how much concern these “leaders” have for the poor and indigent.

At a time when there is double-digit inflation and food articles, especially grains, are becoming costlier by the day, and the Indian Rupee is on a downhill course, steeply affecting the purchasing power of Indians, and the poor and hungry suffer while millions of tons of food grains are rotting in the godowns of the Food Corporation of India, we keep nitpicking inside and outside Parliament. We need to remember that the Right to Food was acknowledged by the United Nations as early as 1948. India is a signatory to this covenant and it is a shame that after over six decades, we are unable to enact a legislation that will protect the vulnerable. It is a greater shame when food inflation is on a double-digit scale and food is going out of the reach of the vulnerable segments of society who have no regular income and are most affected by the foot-dragging and indifference of New Delhi.

As a society, we disagree on almost everything. Disagreement on Food Security Bill is not a tragedy but a scandal in a society where some ride in Mercedes Benz cars while millions do not know where their next meal will come from. A trip to the tribal regions of Orissa State or the eastern parts of Uttar Pradesh or Bihar will reveal the significance of what I am saying. There is no point blowing our trumpets that the so-called green revolution has filled our granaries and we are “self sufficient” in food when millions go hungry daily or sleep on empty or half-filled stomachs. Where is the “Right to Food” bill enacted by the United Nations going?

In New Delhi, the government believes it is more important to be seen to be doing things than actually doing what is beneficial for the poor. The discussion on the Food Security Bill is an example of this behaviour. We cannot debate ad nauseum but must get down to the task of passing a bill vital for the health of millions. Our debates often are about scoring points, not making progress. Probably this is why Prof. Amartya Sen titled one of his books “The Argumentative Indian”. One of the important arguments about the provisions of the Bill centers on the need to have or not to have the Public Distribution System (PDS), Targetted ublic Distribution System (TPDS), or, in its place, a cash transfer. 

Given the ground realities of the procurement system in India, I maintain that the PDS is the best bet to succeed. But both supporters of the PDS and its sceptics must realize that the Bill in its current form needs revision. It has a few promising features as far as the provision of PDS is concerned. But its approach to PDS lacks the central element of good legislation, that is, integrity. A scheme must be a good-faith effort to implement, which has a high probability of success, than continue with premises we all know will certainly fail.

One thing we all must realize is that the Targetted Public Distribution System (TPDS) will certainly fail because the scheme relies on complex targeting. Even with the latest Janani Suraksha Yojana there is evidence that States which universalised it had greater success than States which had the TPDS. Universality or self targeting is not a sufficient condition for a scheme’s success, but is a condition of making success possible. One can make clear exclusions of the very privileged class of people in society. But the numbers involved are so small that the gains by doing so are not at all clear.

Instead of the above approach, what does the proposed new legislation do? It creates categories like “priority households” and “general category households” and introduces more forms of differential pricing. In short, it deliberately incorporates into its design three features which have made schemes on food distribution in the past a total failure: impractical targeting of categories, administrative complexity, and incentives on top of it all!

It is far more important to keep the scheme simple. It will have more integrity and the chances of success are higher. Exclude households that come under the unambiguous automatic exclusion criteria if necessary, but keep just one category of beneficiaries, and a standard 25 kilograms of food grains for all. And keep one scheme, namely, “Antyodaya”, which has worked relatively better, launched during the Prime Ministership of A.B. Vajpayee. This suggestion is not political; this was truly one scheme which worked fairly well in India, as the very name clearly suggests.

Administrative simplicity is central to the success of the legislation. Ironically, the below poverty line (BPL) list of Indian households is a most corrupted list, where manipulations are rampant. We all know that the unscrupulous rich manage to get into the BPL list and scrounge of the State’s largesse. One of the greatest ironies of Indian administration is that subsidies like the fuel subsidy benefit the privileged and rich more than the poor and well deserving for whom it is meant.

Take the classical example of the fuel subsidy like the diesel subsidy. It is meant to help the poor, to help subsidise public transport of Indians and Indian goods, so as to make it cheap by keeping transport costs low. But in reality it is the owners of expensive cars who benefit most. This loophole has been exploited by manufacturers of expensive diesel automobiles, even those of foreign brands. These subsidies are couched in universalistic terms, but those that actually benefit the poor, such as the kerosene subsidy, are always targeted.

This is insulting to the poor and unprivileged. The government and its spokespersons project a view that what the poor and unprivileged are getting is something “special”, a “largesse” bestowed by those who rule, rather than their right as citizens. Read the United Nations Covenant of 1948 on “Right to Food” and “Right to Work”, Article 25, and you will understand what I am saying. To my mind, it appears the Indian government is more interested in “defining” the poor, rather than helping them. And the Food Security Bill, in its current form, is a classical example of this distorted mindset of New Delhi.

The second aspect of integrity is this: If the principal objective is to formulate a foolproof Food Security Bill, then we have to find the means of ensuring that it is done, no matter the physical obstacles. This resolve seems totally missing in the mindset of those vested with this crucial responsibility. Failure will affect our future generations, primarily the poor and underprivileged.

The Ministry of Agriculture and the Planning Commission have consistently allowed some distorted sense of objectivity to cloud their task. They are not earnestly interested in a foolproof Food Security Bill, ensuring adequate security and nutrition for all. I argued about the later aspect in an article published in in November.  The Ministry of Agriculture and the Planning Commission are more interested in the classification of Indian households, poverty caps, export price of food grains etc.

While some of these concerns are genuine, they cannot afford to miss the central focus of the bill. It is like throwing the baby with the bathwater. It is vital that any food grain procurement scheme from the farmers does not, in any way, diminish incentives for farmers. There is something seriously wrong when anyone suggests that we do not have the money to procure, or the grain to guarantee food security.

Has the FCI made genuine efforts during the several decades it has been in existence, using public money, to scout for food from all States? No, it mainly focuses on Punjab, Haryana and western Uttar Pradesh. Why? If genuine efforts are made to procure food from all over India, thousands of farmers will benefit from the minimum support price (MSP) guaranteed by New Delhi, than at present.

I feel that government must plan what it cannot or should not do. Success is often not doing the wrong things, rather doing only the right things. Government thinks that if it cannot ensure food security, it will give wages instead. It introduces cash through the back door. It is hard to know what to make of this idea. But elementary political economy tells you that if you introduce cash in a scheme not designed for it, the chances for corruption simply escalate dramatically. The Indian experience is ample testimony to this reality.

The Food Security Bill in its present form gives the impression that it will create the worst of all worlds. It will increase expenditure, say those responsible for drafting this bill. I am sure that the administrative imagination that has gone into drafting the bill will doubtless ensure that the outcome is deeply disappointing. It is almost like someone in government saying that if the PDS is introduced, I will ensure that it does not work, and consequently, allow the system to collapse.

In intellectual debates, we will use this as a pretext to say that public or private responsibility will not work in India. Indian politicians typically think that the politics of being seen with the poor is more important for their own survival than grappling with the administrative protocols that have imprisoned the poor and underprivileged in this country for decades.

Unfortunately, a number of babus are also veering towards this mindset. Everyone has to be “popular” in the public eye! This is the greatest tragedy of Indian politics, and of late Indian administration. As a society we disagree on many things, but it will be the greatest failure of governance in independent India if we fail to draft a Food Security Bill that honestly cares and nurtures the poor and under privileged, and not the Chairmen or Chief Executive Officers of Corporate India who are swimming in unimagined affluence.

The author is a Kerala-based international agricultural scientist and formerly Professor, National Science Foundation, The Royal Society, Belgium, and Senior Fellow Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, The Federal Republic of Germany; he can be reached at

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