Elections win over hunger

The problem of correctly identifying BPL beneficiaries is a real hurdle to getting food to the poor. How does the ordinance aim to address this?

Politics has won over concern for the poor and the government has pushed the Food Security Bill through an ordinance. Images of the Congress top brass are flooding TV screens, shyly taking credit for this great bonanza for the poor. Congress leaders are making non-stop statements about how the Congress Party, under the leadership of Mrs Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi, has fought all odds (read the Bharatiya Janata Party) to get food to the poor. It’s been a political coup and the BJP must admit that it has been sledge-hammered by its own brand of ninny politics.
While there have been supporters of the Food Security Bill in civil society, notably the Sonia Gandhi-led National Advisory Council, many others have opposed the bill, calling it opportunistic, political gimmickry and plain unworkable. The well intentioned Right to Food Campaign was unwilling to extend the contours of the bill and include the production of food in its demands, so even those who challenged the government draft restricted themselves to the distribution of food, which is only what the Food Security Bill is all about.
According to the ordinance, five kg of rice or wheat or millets per month will be given to a beneficiary at subsidised rates of `3, `2 and `1 respectively. A family of five will therefore be entitled to receive 25 kgs of grain per month under the food law. The Bill aims to cover 75 per cent of rural India, of which 46 per cent lives below the poverty line (BPL), and 50 per cent of urban India, of which 20 per cent is BPL. According to the government, 67 per cent of all Indians will be the priority group for the Food Security Bill, which means close to 85 crore Indians will be entitled to avail subsidised grain.
Far from taking pride in this figure, we should be shocked that the government is willing to put so many people on dole to win an election but is not willing to take steps to support farmers, strengthen agriculture and food production and make people self-reliant.
At a meeting some months before the ordinance, minister of state for consumer affairs, food and public distribution K.V. Thomas stated that about 65 million tons of foodgrain will have to be procured to implement the bill. Taking all factors into account, the total cost to the government at current prices would be about `1,40,000 crore since the state governments are passing on the transportation costs and commissions.
Mr Thomas conceded that storage capacity was not adequate to hold the procured grain and would need to be increased. If all goes according to plan, the ordinance will roll out in six months, but will the storage space be available by then, or will we again be shocked by mountains of grain rotting in the open?
A major problem of the current food support schemes is the large number of bogus registrations under the BPL category. Correctly identifying BPL beneficiaries is the real hurdle. How does the ordinance aim to address this problem? A Planning Commission report says that “about 58 per cent of the subsidised food grains issued from the Central pool do not reach the BPL households because of identification errors, non-transparent operation and unethical practices in the implementation of targeted PDS”.
The government’s spokespersons say that once the Aadhar programme comes into play and Unique Identification Numbers (UIDs) are allotted, the problem will be fixed. But how? All we may get to know is that these numbers or those did not get the rations they are entitled to. How will implementing the Aadhar scheme ensure that the people in the BPL list are those who are genuinely in need and not the favoured of local politicians? BPL lists are notoriously false.
In Jharkhand, a Gene Campaign study showed how muddled and biased the situation is with respect to those entitled to receive food support. Many of the poorest and infirm were unaware that they were entitled to food allocations; they were simply left out because they could not press their case. The lists sent up by the panchayat included the names of family members and political supporters, people to be granted favours. How will the UID fix this problem? Or how will it stop the hijacking of food or the hoarding and black-marketing of grains?
As several policy inputs have recommended, the only realistic way of tackling the leaking public distribution system is to decentralise procurement and distribution, increase public participation and transparency. This can be best done by procuring the grain (and other foods) locally. The closer the procurement centre is to the distribution centre, the greater the possibility of people’s vigilance and, therefore, diminished opportunities for pilferage. But in the current scheme, grain procurement will still be done from “surplus” states like Andhra Pradesh, Punjab and Haryana and shipped thousands of kilometers away. The long transport route will continue to leak food all the way and Aadhar or no Aadhar, it will be difficult to plug the pilfering. So wastage of grain is likely to remain high during procurement, storage, transportation and distribution and there is nothing apparent in the food ordinance that will tackle these problems.
There can be no question that the government must do all it can to provide food security to the poor and handicapped, but this cynical bill, with its eye on the 2014 polls, is not any answer to the problems of hunger and malnutrition. The people of India are entitled to a better deal than this politically opportunistic bill. If the government is unwilling to listen, can the Opposition force the new ordinance back to the drafting board and give people an opportunity to draft another, better law?

The writer, chairperson of Gene Campaign, is a scientist and development activist. She can be reached at mail@genecampaign.org

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