The Food Spin Bill
The current debate on the Food Security Bill, due to become an act soon, is based on myths on both sides. The Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government is propagating the myth that it is the largest anti-poverty, anti-hunger programme ever introduced anywhere in the world. It is being called Congress president Sonia Gandhiâ€™s dream project and is being projected as a miracle solution to the agrarian crisis as well as the food crisis.
On the other hand, economic pundits are blaming the Food Security Bill for the falling rupee and the economic emergency the country is facing. The pundits have got it wrong because they have treated the spin about the Food Security Bill as the reality.
The spin is that it is all new and, therefore, by implication, it introduces a new burden of food subsidies amounting to trillions of rupees. The reality, however, is that it is old wine in a new bottle. As minister of state for consumer affairs, food and public distribution K.V. Thomas clarified in the Rajya Sabha on Monday, all that the Food Security Bill does is bundle existing schemes for public feeding and presents them as one big, new scheme. According to him, the additional financial burden is only `10,000 crore per annum.
It is also not the largest scheme ever in terms of coverage. In fact, the universal public distribution system (PDS) that we had until 1991 had 100 per cent coverage. And it cost us less. The cost of the PDS was `25,000 crore. It was dismantled allegedly under pressure from the World Bank and International Monetary Fund during the 1991 structural adjustments called the â€śeconomic reformsâ€ť on grounds that a targeted PDS would reduce the subsidy burden. The PDS became the â€śtargeted PDSâ€ť. Fewer people were served. However, the subsidy went up to more than `60,000 crore instead of coming down. The increased cost for serving fewer people was because of two reasons. One was the huge administrative burden of identifying, issuing and managing blue cards, yellow cards, pink cardsâ€¦ (this also became the basis for political favours and corruption in the issuing of ration cards). Second, the trimming of a universal PDS to a â€śtargeted PDSâ€ť created a huge gap between market prices and ration shop prices. â€śTargeted PDSâ€ť increased the quantum of subsidies, leading to the erosion of price control mechanisms of the Essential Commodities Act. Also, the polarisation between market prices and ration shop prices promoted leakages from the PDS.
That is why the Right to Food movement and many political parties have been calling for a Universal Public Food System, to reduce the cost burden and corruption.
The Prime Minister keeps repeating that he will continue with â€śreformsâ€ť. However, both the food crisis and the economic crisis are results of the so-called reforms introduced in 1991. More people are denied the right to food because the livelihoods of small and marginal farmers are being destroyed in the name of â€śreformsâ€ť in the agriculture sector, i.e. corporate seeds, chemical inputs and corporate procurement instead of public procurement. The result is debt, hunger and suicides. Every fourth Indian today is a victim of hunger. And half the hungry are farmers who are growing agricultural produce but cannot eat what they grow, either because they are growing cash crops like cotton, or because they are growing rice, wheat, corn, with high input costs for which they borrow, and must sell their produce to pay off the debt for seeds and chemicals.
That is why lowering the cost of production and increasing the livelihood security of small and marginal farmers must be the first step to create real food security. However, the Food Security Bill is totally silent on production, procurement and farmersâ€™ livelihood and food rights. This, in my view, is its biggest failing.
The silence on production makes many people feel that the Food Security Bill could increase Indiaâ€™s import dependency in food. We are already spending thousands of crores in importing and subsidising pulses and edible oils.
Until the Green Revolution, India was the biggest producer and exporter of oilseeds and pulses. The Green Revolution based on rice and wheat destroyed our self-reliance in pulses and oilseeds, and globalisation and liberalisation of food trade has only made it worse. We need to introduce tariffs on imports of edible oils and pulses, both to give our farmers a level playing field and to reduce our trade and budget
The single most important step in strengthening food security is securing farmersâ€™ livelihoods by liberating farmers from costly inputs and the debt trap. This is what is making agriculture unviable for farmers. Lowering production costs through ecological agriculture does not just improve farmersâ€™ lives, it also improves the health and fertility of the soil, thus strengthening the ecological foundation for food security. Most importantly, it can help in getting rid of the `150,000 crore subsidy given for chemical fertilisers and non-renewable corporate seeds. With the falling rupee, this subsidy burden is bound to increase. That is why the current economic crisis makes a shift to ecological/organic farming, which does not need purchased external inputs, an imperative.
The death of 23 children in Bihar in July due to pesticide poisoning in midday meal is a wake-up call to the nation to fix the food system. A careless food system threatens the Earth and the lives of our people. Money cannot compensate for the harm done by callousness, carelessness and corruption. We need to cultivate respect for the soil that feeds us, the hands that feed us.
On October 16, World Food Day, let us recognise our annadatas â€” our kisans and the men and women who cook in our homes and communities. They are the real food heroes. On them rests the food security of the nation, today and in the future.
The writer is the executive director of the Navdanya Trust