Open Letter to Sharad Pawar: Kindly Acknowledge, Minister

Written by  //  December 20, 2011  //  National Politics  //  8 Comments

[A guest post by Agrima Bhasin, a graduate student in Social and Cultural Anthropology at the University of Oxford. Agrima writes to Sharad Pawar with a plea and an argument to make the most of the historic opportunity that the National Food Security Bill, 2011 provides to remove hunger and malnutrition, rather than using it to play opportunistic politics, as is currently being done]

Dearest,

Mr. Sharad Pawar

‘Hon’ble’ Minister of Agriculture, Consumer Affairs, Food and Public Distribution, Government of India.

20 December 2011

Sir,

You will agree that it is often the circus of Indian politics that provides the subtext to our melodramatic movies. This is apparent in the current U-turn by the Government to green signal the National Food Security Bill (NFSB) 2011; a ‘feel good’ moment in a Bollywood movie with the heroine singing ‘I’m Feeling Good’ before the interval. Minister, I hope you are not partaking in this populist songfest just yet and instead toiling hard to fine-tune the Bill, to leave the masses with a happy ending.

Last week you deferred the Bill, deeming it a fiscal “burden” and a “big headache” for the Government. In contrast, your good friend, K.V. Thomas on record said that in the face of inflation, it is incumbent on the government “…to shoulder some financial burden for this.” Before expressing solidarity with Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress in questioning the “sustainability” of this ‘generous’ rights-based legal entitlement, you did not realise that your words delivered to the faces of the poor, a slap, the hurt of which you are very familiar with.

This slap comes only a few months after the Planning Commission asserted that the poor could live on Rs.32 and Rs.26 a day in rural and urban areas, respectively. Here’s wishing that you acknowledge how belittling these figures are, unless, of course you invite the poor to eat from the Parliament canteen everyday, serving, as it does, food that is shockingly subsidised (‘chai’ for Re.1; ‘dal’ and ‘roti’ for Rs.1.50 each among other options).

You argued that, “If there’s a famine, from where will we get food to support the hungry?” My answer is- the silent emergency of malnutrition and day-to-day, chronic hunger demands your immediate attention over a one-off famine that can be prevented in the first place. And prevention is better than cure, Minister. Let us not hoard the grain to be distributed only on the ‘occasion’ of famine for we will still have a surplus, if only we can prevent the grain from rotting in FCI godowns across India.

We understand you are upset that the rupee depreciated. But in addition to “fiscal constraints,” you also cited “foodgrain shortage” and increased procurement as concerns. However, your concerns have been rendered invalid by the Government’s recent turn-around in assuring availability of food grains and declaring that there is enough scope of widening procurement beyond the present 30% grain acquisition.

Minister, now is your chance to transcend the developmental rhetoric and guarantee food security not only in letter, but also in spirit. The Bill, as it stands, runs the risk of being old wine in a new bottle. However, giving it teeth will enormously relieve the food insecure. Under pressure from Soniaji, the Cabinet may have passed the Bill in haste, but a Bill aiming to mandate the ‘right to food’ as a legal obligation surely requires some hectic deliberation, hitherto missing.

You can begin by addressing these limitations in the Bill. See below.

Kaun Banega BPL

Montek Singh Ahluwalia on national TV asserted that the BPL poverty caps would not determine food entitlements. If this is true then what explains the inclusion of 46% rural and 28% urban households in the respective ‘priority’ groups (caps in the Draft Bill that coincide with the unrevised BPL estimates of the Tendulkar Committee 2004-05)? Why this ‘doublespeak’, Minister?

In relation to PDS, the Bill borrows the from the NAC framework and classifies households into three target groups: ‘priority’, ‘general’ and ‘excluded’ (a nomenclature makeover for APL, BPL?). Why this is so problematic is something the naysayers desist from debating.

  • Firstly, the proposed coverage of 75% rural and 50% urban populace, conveniently excludes the remaining 25% and 50%, respectively.
  • Secondly, there is serious ambiguity as to how the three target groups will be ‘identified’. In this context, the Government’s reliance on the Social and Economic Caste Census (SECC) employs narrowly defined exclusion criteria, a recipe for misclassification and erroneous exclusion of often those who it seeks to include.

It is heartening to an extent that Mr. K.V. Thomas has decided to take these poverty caps as the minimum numbers to be ensured under the Bill and made room for further entitlements based on the data of the unfinished BPL Census. Still, the Planning Commission’s obsession with the ‘Below Poverty Line’ has grossly underestimated poverty in the past, in addition to wrongly excluding the actual poor from BPL benefits. And ironically, there is now a demand for ‘BPL status’, perpetuating poverty in its own way through the politics of classification.

Lastly, ‘identification’ of the BPL households as the sole prerogative of the Centre undermines the judgement of the state governments in ascertaining the number of poor within their regions. Notice, Minister, that Rajasthan CM Ashok Gehlot, successfully expanded the coverage of PDS in his State.

Universalisation

Minister, you are aware that the Bill marries food guarantees to unrepresentative poverty caps. Therefore, we can ill-afford differential subsidies for ‘priority’ and ‘general’ groups since 25% and 50% of the households in rural and urban areas are excluded anyway. If you cannot consider universalising the PDS, then at best consider collapsing this futile division between ‘priority’ and ‘general’ and guarantee a basic minimum entitlement universally to at least the 75% (rural) and 50% (urban) poor that you have chosen to cover.

Our objective definition of poverty can never subsume the subjective reality of the poor. Hence, the pro-universalisation arguments are simple. To target ‘general’ and ‘priority’ groups instead of universalising PDS for all is to be penny wise but pound foolish. Complex PDS targeting has failed us in the past and will fail us now. Conversely, universalisation will allow you to get rid of the administrative difficulties, transaction costs and ambiguities accruing from the Socio-Economic Caste Census (SECC) that aims to ‘identify’ target groups.

Further, if you want to entitle the ‘priority’ groups to 35 kilos of food grains a month at Re.1 for millets, Re.2 for wheat, and Re.3 for rice; and the ‘general’ groups to 15 kilos of food grains a month at higher prices, economists would tell you that universalisation is a buffer against black-markets that capitalise on dual pricing of the same good.

I am also aware of your concerns about the increased pressure on procurement practices and the subsequent rise in market prices, if PDS is universalised. But I am given to understand that increased procurement will not result in a food deficit in the market and a subsequent price rise as long as the procured grain is distributed and not hoarded. Refer to this.

Corruption, coupled with leakages and pilferage in PDS, are quick rebuttals to dismiss universalisation. Effective universalisation in states like Tamil Nadu and near universalisation of PDS in Chattisgarh, Andhra Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Karnataka, Orissa, Rajasthan among others, are examples that are rarely considered by critics.

Food Minister, K.V. Thomas is hesitant to universalise subsidised grains for he fears that a food grain deficit might dishonour a legal guarantee of food entitlement to the poor. Although it is wholly questionable whether we might fall short of grain, I appreciate Mr. Thomas’ reluctance to make false promises, and also the time and energy he has invested in this Bill thus far.

Cash Transfers

‘Ek aur baat’, Minister. Why this mention of U.S. style food coupons and Brazil type Cash Transfers (CTs), knowing perfectly well that the PDS, how much ever corrupt, is the lifeline of the poor? Cash is inflation sensitive and can be potentially (mis) used for purchases other than food, even if handed out to the woman. Further, setting up bank accounts for every food insecure household is far from hassle free (even if you ‘leverage’ UID). One is not averse to direct CTs as an added security net in future. However, its introduction as a substitute for PDS is premature at best and unreliable at worst.

In places like Brazil, where CTs have worked, there is an already existing, strong system of public services and infrastructure, in addition to effective banking. And until we achieve this, encouraging the poor to opt for CTs is the surest route to minimising Government responsibility in reaching food to the poor!

The Challenge of ‘Implementation’

Minister, your Government is ready to foot the bill for this legislation amidst naysayers whining about poor economics and unstable economy. So fiscal and food deficit concerns aside, the biggest impediment in achieving food security is likely to be the absence, in the Bill, of a detailed plan on effective implementation (procurement, storage, distribution and vigilance).

Three recommendations that are popular in this regard are :1) use local procurement, local distribution and local storage in the spirit of decentralised planning, 2) include civil society representatives in the composition of the three-tier grievance redressal mechanism and 3) set up local vigilance bodies comprising the poor as the primary stakeholders, in addition to people like my colleagues and I who are happy to assist you with local vigilance.

If we start from the premise that ‘policy is what it does’ then we will avoid the peril of seeing ‘implementation’ as delinked from policy.

60 years after independence, what we have is a dismal report card on poverty, malnutrition, hunger and farmer suicides. The need of the hour is your ‘door ki soch’, Minister. There is great potential in the NFSB to adopt a multi-faceted approach in addressing nutrition, agriculture, health, gender inequality and sustenance. And the inclusion, inter alia, of maternity benefits, mid-day-meals, ICDS services in the Bill is noteworthy. Since not all of these can take shape as legal provisions, convergence on a shared platform, of ministries whose policies relate to food security, can overcome this legal shortcoming in the long term.

Brazil’s cash transfers scheme was quick to hold your imagination but there is another, more crucial lesson that we ought to learn from Brazil. And that is, the ‘political will’ of their politicians, especially, President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva who achieved the convergence of over 30 programmes (or ministries) to make his “Fome Zero” (Zero Hunger) policy a success.

I am no economist but while urging you to reconsider your priorities on moral grounds, I support those in the Government who suggest that you earnestly explore the fiscal space within the existing budget to accommodate food security for all without comprising our current financial position. Reprioritising expenditure, taxing the rich or raising a minimum tax will make room for the ‘lack’ of funds. Expenditure on Formula 1, ‘mall tax’ for constructing the fifth mall in the same area, free airline tickets to extended families of Air India personnel, unnecessary tax exemptions and avoiding of losses in pilferage and storage of grain- are a few issues you can rethink to begin with. Surely, expert economists in the Planning Commission can offer better suggestions.

Most importantly, Minister of Agriculture, Sir, serious reforms in the agricultural sector need to be fast tracked to provide market incentives and allow farmers to grow autonomously; for most often those who grow food for you and me are the ones who are deprived of the same. And naysayers, who interpret a State’s obligation to provision food at affordable prices as ‘charity’, tell them you’d rather sanction subsidised food grains than have the poor beg (arms outstretched) for ‘charity’!

There is a moral immediacy to ensure food security in the country. This letter merely reiterates what others have intelligently argued several times before. Minister, the intention to guarantee food as an enforceable right is most laudable. It could set an ambitious global precedent in eradicating hunger and malnutrition. And since you are a direct stakeholder, one asks you to prioritise this Bill, pass it in the Budget session even, but do give it some bite. Let this not go down as a wasted opportunity.

Kindly Acknowledge, Minister.

[See also on Food Security: Natasha, on ‘India’s Insecure Food Bill: Hurting the Poor and Anish, on ‘The Politics of Universal Entitlements’]

8 Comments on "Open Letter to Sharad Pawar: Kindly Acknowledge, Minister"

  1. Subeer Nadgonde December 22, 2011 at 7:40 am ·

    Nice piece Agrima, keep writing.
    Subeer Nadgonde

  2. Parag Sathaye December 22, 2011 at 9:38 am ·

    Good one!! Comprehensive with facts and other published details. I also learnt a lot as I did not know many of the things you talked about.

  3. Vaibhav Nadgonde December 22, 2011 at 2:03 pm ·

    Dear Agrima,

    very nice !! Kya likha hain wah ….

    Keep up the good work.

    Regards
    Vaibhav Nadgonde

  4. Bhuvan Nadgonde December 23, 2011 at 3:56 am ·

    Good fact based comments. Such write-ups should help building informed opinion amongst readers and push for the right decisions.

  5. Salil Makoday December 24, 2011 at 5:23 am ·

    Dear, Agrima Bhasin Madam,

    Well thought tips, to Mr Sharad Pawar Minister & his entire circus team.
    For food Minister it is good food for thought & act on it.
    Regards,
    M. Salil

  6. Kanishka Narayan December 28, 2011 at 2:17 am ·

    I thought this was really good. Have done a quick follow-up on some small deets: http://kanishkanarayan.wordpress.com/2011/12/28/food-security-in-india-questions-on-fiscal-policy-and-delivery/

    Best,
    Kanishka

  7. Ruchira January 1, 2012 at 12:46 pm ·

    Excellent! Learnt a lot. Thanks.

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