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Friday, December 30, 2011

Pushing Reforms on the Back of Hunger -BRINDA KARAT

THE Food Security Bill 2011, introduced in parliament and sent for the consideration of the standing committee, will provide legal sanction to the very policies which have led to the present situation of widespread hunger and malnutrition. Some of the issues in the bill are (1) Narrow targeting, categorisation and definitions (2) Conditional entitlements (3) Extreme centralisation and violation of states rights’ (4) Expenditures and cost sharing.

INCREASED
TARGETING

While experience has shown that targeting policies for food security are counter-productive, the present bill adds new categories of targeting. Indeed the bill is a classic example of the absurd levels to which policies of targeting can reach and the extent of social cruelty embedded in a targeted framework.

So far there have been three categories for targeting for food access in the PDS, namely the APL, BPL and Antodaya. The last category was carved out from the BPL population with an added price advantage of 35 kg of rice at two rupees a kilo. The present bill eliminates the Antodaya category. Henceforth all the 2.5 crore Antodaya families will come under the BPL category and will have to pay one rupee a kilo more for rice which has been pegged in the new bill at three rupees. Thus for these 2.5 crore families the present version of food security means an added cost of 35 rupees a kilo per month.

ARBITRARY
CATEGORISATION

The bill has the following categories:
(1) BPL: The first category is the BPL category renamed as the “priority sections.” These sections are eligible for 7 kg of foodgrains per person (it is not clear whether a child is considered a person under this definition), if it is rice it will cost three rupees a kilo and wheat at two rupees a kilo, millets or coarse grains at one rupee a kilo.

The number of BPL households at the national level is declared in the law to constitute 46 per cent of the population in rural India and 28 per cent in urban India with state-wise variations which will be decided by the centre. Since several states are giving rice at two rupees a kilo today, BPL sections in those states will also be paying one rupee a kilo more for rice.
(2) APL: The second category is the APL category renamed the “general sections.” The Bill declares these sections to constitute 29 per cent in rural areas and 22 per cent in urban areas. This is less than the number of APL cardholders today. Therefore a substantial section of APL cardholders will be excluded by law. Those who manage to retain their APL cards will get only 3 kg of foodgrains per person. Assuming a family of five members, the bill provides a maximum of only 15 kg of foodgrains which is less than what the APL sections are getting now. The price will be 50 per cent of what the minimum support price (MSP) is at any given time. Since MSP increases every year because of the increase in the prices of farm inputs, APL sections will lose the advantage of the fixed price they have today and will have to contend with an increased price every year. Therefore, in terms of numbers, price benefit and amount of grain, APL sections stand to lose their present entitlements. There is another highly objectionable new provision, which will be dealt with later in this analysis — namely, even the reduced entitlements of the APL sections are linked to the implementation of reforms.
(3) Excluded Sections: There is a third category which has been introduced, for the first time, in the public distribution system. The Bill mandates the exclusion of 25 per cent of the population of rural India and fifty per cent of the population of urban India from the benefits of the bill. The guidelines for exclusion are to be decided by the central government from time to time. This is a new contribution of the UPA government to the concept of food security — legally sanctioned automatic exclusion.
(4) BPL Census Automatic Exclusions Category: However, there is yet another exclusion, the fourth exclusion, which may occur. The questionnaire of the BPL census has already defined the categories of those sections which would lead to an automatic exclusion. The questions themselves are highly problematic. But assume that the numbers reached through this exercise do not add up to 50 per cent of the population in urban areas or even 25 per cent in rural areas, which is what is required in the Food Security Act. Then what will occur is a fourth exclusion category to make up the gap between the two, the arbitrary exclusion percentage requirement of the Bill on the one hand, and the actual numbers identified through the BPL census on the other.
Apart from the ethical issues arising out of arbitrary exclusions from what should be recognised as the universal right of food security, even from a purely economic and administrative point of view, the multiple levels of categorisations will lead to added expenditures, guaranteed leakages and increased corruption.

ABSURDITIES
IN DEFINITIONS

The definitions section in the bill further expose the folly of targeting . In the section on “special groups” there are provisions for further affirmative action for some sections. But how are these defined? Persons living in starvation are to get two free meals a day once they are so identified by the state government. Starvation has been defined in Chapter 1 Clause 2 (24) as "prolonged involuntary deprivation of food that threatens the very survival of the person.” But who will decide when survival is threatened? At present, even after a person has died due to starvation, official medical teams prompted by governments declare the person had died due to some other ailment. There is rarely an acknowledgement of a starvation death. Then again, what will happen to the semi-starving? Will they have to wait till they come into the category of starvation to get the benefit? Another example is that of “destitution.” In the bill in Ch III Clause 8 (a) a destitute person “shall be entitled to at least one meal every day” — so there is a differentiation being made in the benefits for those in starvation and those in destitution. While the former is entitled to two free meals, the latter gets only one. This absurdity is taken further in the definition of a destitute person. In Ch 1, Clause 2 (3) destitute persons are those who "have no resources, means and support required for food and nutrition enabling their survival, to the extent that makes them vulnerable to live or die of starvation." Can any sane person find any difference between a person in starvation whose life is threatened by food deprivation and a destitute who is vulnerable to death by starvation? But World Bank trained or indoctrinated economists can find the subtle differences between equally hungry people to decide who will get two free meals and who will get only one. These abhorrent differentiations between equally poor and deprived sections are fundamental to the ideology of neo-liberalism and targeting. The logical corollary of targeting --- we can now have inspectors to confirm how often people eat, whether they are destitute or starving or whether they are cheating the treasury by eating two free meals when they deserve only one.

In the 1930s when the capitalist crisis had created "the Great Depression," free soup kitchens were run in the United States. But at that time no one needed a card to prove that they were hungry, it was assumed that only those in need would stand in the queue for free food. Even that sensitivity gets eliminated in the present dominant philosophy of neo-liberalism where targeting and cuts in subsidies in welfare schemes has become the mantra of governments.
In a country with the highest malnourished population in the world, free meals to a small number are an inadequate response. What is required to prevent starvation and hunger is universal access to cheap foodgrains and a basket of essential commodities. The Food Security Bill, however, does the opposite.

LINKING ENTITLEMENTS
TO REFORMS

The Food Security Bill has an additional provision which was not there in the earlier drafts. Even the reduced entitlements for APL sections have been made conditional to the reform process. Ch II Clause 3(3) states, "Provided that the entitlements of those belonging to the general households shall be linked to such reforms in the public distribution system and from such date as may be prescribed by the central government." In a new chapter VII entitled ‘Reforms in the Public Distribution System,’ the central government details eight reforms of which the most toxic are the "introduction of schemes such as cash transfer, food coupons or other schemes for targeted beneficiaries in lieu of foodgrains;" and "use of aadhar for unique identification with biometric information for proper targeting." Thus contentious policy measures which are against the interests of the people are sought to be legalised on the back of the Food Security Bill. This is a highly objectionable strategy which amounts to using the Food Security Bill to blackmail states to accept the so-called reforms or else be held responsible and guilty of depriving the APL households of their entitlements.

LEGAL SANCTION FOR
BOGUS POVERTY ESTIMATES

In any case, how has the government arrived at the percentages of BPL and APL that it wants included as the law? Contrary to media hype, there is no change in government policy regarding estimations of poverty, nor is there any delinking between the Planning Commission’s bogus estimates and poverty “quotas” given to the states as promised by the prime minister in response to the public outrage against the government affidavit in the Supreme Court case. Chapter V1 Clause 15(1) states, “The central government may from time to time prescribe the guidelines for identification for priority households, general households and exclusion criteria for the purposes of entitlements under this Act and notify such guidelines in the official gazette.” The next provision 15 (2) gives responsibility to the state governments to identify these sections “in accordance with the guidelines” but here again the central linkage is made “provided that no household falling under the exclusion criteria to be prescribed by the central government, shall be included either in the priority households or general households.” Further, in Clause 17, in case the state government wants to update the lists it has no right to do so and such updating can only be done “in a manner prescribed by the central government.”
Thus the present highly objectionable method used by government to distribute poverty quotas to the states is sanctioned by the law itself. The notorious 26 rupees a day destitution line used for calculating BPL in rural India and 32 rupees for urban India remains as the anchor for the various categories, with the government arbitrarily increasing it by a certain percentage as a "compromise."

ENCROACHMENTS
ON STATES’ RIGHTS

If the government has learnt any lessons from it's attempts to steamroller the rights of states in the Lokpal Bill, then it should revise the even more blatant encroachments it has made in the food security bill. Under the Food Security Bill the central government has appropriated all rights in deciding a slew of issues in violation of the federal structure. In as many as 20 clauses the words "…..as may be prescribed by the central government have been used." Everything, from deciding poverty quotas, to the amount of food security allowance, to the qualifications of even the district level griveance officer working under the state government, to when and how wheat flour can be given instead of grain, all is to be decided by the central government. The centralised thrust of the bill is illustrated well in Ch XV titled Miscellaneous in Clause 46 which states." The central government may from time to time give such directions as it may consider necessary, to the state governments for the effective implementation of the provisions of the Act and the state governments will comply with such directions.".....Such is the commitment of this government to push through reforms that it does not maintain even the pretence of consultations with the states, many of whom are running much better food security programmes than those envisaged in this Act.

ISSUE OF
EXPENDITURES

Equally objectionable, as far as rights of states are concerned, the bill has no provision for consultation with the states as far as cost sharing is concerned. The expenditures for the states are going to be quite substantial. But even as far as foodgrains supplies are concerned, while the state governments are mandated by the bill to pay the food allowance the bill includes a provision in Ch X clause 31 which allows the centre to substitute food grains supplies with payment to the states. This means that the state would have the responsibility to purchase the foodgrains but there is no guarantee in the bill that the central government would meet the full cost. The states are mandated to fulfil all the schemes including the supply of free meals or rations to special groups. However, the centre according the Clause 30(4) in Ch X will charge the states prices equivalent to the price given for BPL grain. In both these provisions the state governments are expected to subsidise the central scheme from their funds.

As a postscript, the bill has a special "gift" tucked away in the last section under Clause 52. This provision states that if there is a natural calamity which leads to failure of supply of foodgrains then neither the central government nor the state government, as the case may be, can be held liable. The list of conditions where there is no liability includes floods and drought. Since large parts of India are perennially affected by conditions of floods or drought or sometimes both in different regions of the same state, the law to ensure food security will be suspended precisely at the time when people will need it the most, when blackmarketeers and profiteers are out to make profits from the vulnerability of the affected population. The government has no liability in these conditions, and in the non-secular language of the bill, any other "acts of God."

CONCLUSION
The Congress spin masters have propagated the bill as the "pet bill" of the UPA chairperson Mrs Sonia Gandhi. If indeed it is so, it only shows that contrary to media creations, the UPA chairperson is very much in sync with the neo-liberal framework of the Manmohan Singh government, which is why such a deeply flawed bill should be flaunted with her stamp of approval. The bill in its present form is unacceptable. Concrete amendments should be moved before the standing committee and a widespread campaign launched to explain to the people the fraud being perpetrated on them in the name of food security.
GANASHAKTI

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