Jun 18 2013

The Food Security Bill

Now that the Ordinance on the Food security Bill has been deferred, and is likely  face Parliamentary scrutiny, it is time to reflect on  the key provisions  of the Bill, and its long term implications –not just on  access and entitlement to food for the most vulnerable sections of society – but also for its ecological and social dimensions, as well as its impact on agricultural trade in the food grains sector besides  the  ability or otherwise of the state procurement and warehousing agencies to actually implement  the mandate of the government.

At the outset, it must be stated that there can be no two opinions about the responsibility of the state to ‘feed’ the most vulnerable sections. However – if this responsibility is stretched to include more than two third of the entire population – it gets diluted to the point of being ineffective. In fact, several states are already offering 35 kg per month to the poorest families- the proposed Bill would effectively reduce the entitlement to 25 kg per month.  Again, even if this objective of ensuring food security to ‘eighty crore Indians’ was to be met there could be many ways of achieving the same:  the physical delivery of specific commodities is one of these. Livelihood support programmes, direct transfers, food coupons, community kitchens in the most vulnerable hamlets, programmes to address nutrition needs of pregnant women, young mothers, children, elderly and those with special needs. Now that we have the UID has been rolled out in several districts of the country, it should be possible to track vulnerable   groups and individuals and address their specific   needs.

The near universalisation of the Food security has other implications as well. It is accepted that most agriculture production in the country is still based on the subsistence farming model, and that marginal, small farmers and landless workers constitute the majority of rural households. We are in effect  making the self reliant marginal farmer ‘dependent’ on the PDS system for she will now produce  what the market wants, rather than what is best suited for her soil. Why will farmers in Ladhak grow barley, and why will farmers in the Uttarakhand grow rice and mandua on their terraced fields if wheat and rice is going to be given as a matter of right at Rs 3 and Rs 2 per kg. Readers may not be aware that in almost all the mountain states, as also Kerala, thousands of hectares are not being ploughed for it does not make economic sense to do so. When access to food becomes a matter of right, the political economy of production will actually empower the large and medium farmers who will depend on fertilizers and farm equipment to meet the state’s requirement of food to be procured under PDS.

This has major ecological implications as well. The requirement of fertilizers, insecticides and pesticides will grow manifold – and apart from adding to the subsidy bill – it has long term negative effect on the soils. Higher fertilizer use also leads to greater groundwater extraction – and as pointed out in these columns earlier – Punjab has been losing over twenty billion cubic meters of water every year on account of intensive agriculture practices.  The PDS is built on a ‘wheat-rice’ package, and even though coarse cereals have now been included as an option- there is no ‘demand’ – even in the states where it is produced. Moreover the share of coarse cereals is on the decline, and is not likely to pick up, except as an elite health fad.  As such even though coarse cereals are on offer in the menu of the Food Bill, the off take may not be high.

At this juncture, one must also examine the impact of state intervention at such a massive scale on agriculture trade   and agribusiness organizations. If the Bill has to be implemented in both letter and spirit – the role of the private trade will be restricted to ‘intermediation’ between the farmers and State procurement agencies.  Given the woefully inadequate infrastructure to capture the quality parameters (admixtures, moisture, size and colour of grain) of stocks on offer, the decision to classify market arrivals as Fair Average Quality (FAQ) is more by sleight of hand and the whims of the local inspector, rather than any transparent system. However, it must be mentioned here that this can be addressed by encouraging the establishment of grading and sorting equipment in the major agriculture markets, preferably by the private sector on the same lines as weigh bridges have been established across the country. Likewise for warehousing: the country will require major investments in warehousing to ensure that the food produced by the dint and labour of farmers is not lost to the elements! In fact, even at this juncture – the country ought to be spending more on warehousing and cold chain infrastructure to save what is produced – rather than spend more on production without   the wherewithal to store it! It must be added that these capacities have to be created in the private sector – for FCI, CWC and Nafed are already stretched to the hilt.

What are the options? This columnist feels that the existing programmes which address food security needs should be strengthened by plugging loopholes, and many state governments, notably TN, Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan and Gujarat have good working models which can be up scaled and replicated. Restricting the entailments to BPL and families with special needs, but ensuring the proper implementation of the Mid Day meal scheme and ICDS centres will do much more than the proposed Bill. Farmers will be  better served by making major investments in  agri-logistics  : from the launch of dedicated trains for the movement of perishables , support for warehousing and cold chain infrastructure,  grading and sorting machines at procurement centres, improving  the coverage and spread of Kisan Credit  cards and weather based insurance, support to farmers producers companies, and encouraging the private sector to develop Tissue culture Labs and nurseries for improved planting material, among others. We have to make farming profitable, and this will push up rural wages, thereby increasing the purchasing power of the most vulnerable sections of society.

We must rethink the Food Security Bill, and we must think creatively!