Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Food Security Bill: What Will it solve?

PDS and FCI 

  In the decade or so that I spent in the Planning Commission, the Food Ministry, under which the Public Distribution System (PDS) and the Food Corporation of India (FCI) run, was always one among other Advisory responsibilities on Development Policy.  It did not take very long to find out that the fundamental problem with the system was about so called “leakages” abetted by corruption:  One soon learnt that FCI was one of the most inefficient and corrupt organizations in the government. At that time available estimates of leakage plus administrative costs ranged between 40% and 55%. The other problem was of exclusion – some poor people did not have access to a ration card or subsidized food, whence the horrifying reports of starvation in remote and tribal areas of the country.  This led me to propose the introduction of a Food credit/debit card using smart card technology, which could be integrated with the food for work program and also have the inbuilt flexibility to change over to an income transfer system if desired (Planning Commission Working paper 5/2002).[1]  Instead of dealing with the very difficult political and bureaucratic problems that have stymied genuine reform of the food system, the “Food Security Act,” proposes to deal with these problems with, ”A stroke of the pen.” Unfortunately very little will change, besides providing lucrative new opportunities for bureaucratic and political corruption!

Hunger & Malnutrition

What are the real problems that are still awaiting serious government and NGO attention?  In 2004-2005, 2% of households suffered from hunger at some point during the year and about 25% of people were below the poverty line, but as many as  45% of children below the age of 3 (5) years were malnourished.  If we leave philosophy and politics aside, these facts suggest that,
(a) As hunger affects only 8% of the poor, the food security bill and anti-poverty programs are not the best way of reaching the hungry, who are dispersed across the country and in tribal and remote areas.  The hungry have to be individually and geographically identified/ located. Once this is done it would not cost much to eliminate this hunger through direct cash or food transfers, depending on whether there are or are not competitive food markets in the area where they live.  Thus in remote or hilly areas it is probably necessary to supply food.
(b) Malnutrition is a much bigger problem than poverty and the causes are unlikely to be the same, even though there may be some overlap.  Anti-poverty measures/programs are unlikely to solve the malnutrition problem.

Facts and Analysis

Analysis of the state wise 2004-5 NSS and 2005-6 NFHS data led to the conclusion that the most important cause of malnutrition in India was the abysmal state of ‘public health’ in terms of sanitation, pure drinking water and public knowledge about the importance of cleanliness (al la germs in dirty water, dirt and grime) and nutrition (basic food groups etc.).[2]  If this appears surprising, think about the simple act of eating and digesting food and absorbing energy and nutrition from it.  A child or adult who is sick with diahorea or dysentery can eat as much as (s)he wants but will not be able to absorb it effectively.  Recent medical research goes further, to show that even those children who are living in unsanitary conditions, but do not show any symptoms of gastro-intestinal disease, are infected with germs in their intestines that do not allow them to absorb nutrients from the food they eat.
Cross country analysis of malnutrition data confirms the conclusions of the India analysis.[3] The quality of public health, as measured by variables such as access to better sanitation and improved water sources, explains much of the cross-country variations in the prevalence of malnutrition and the high malnutrition in India relative to other countries with similar levels of per capita income and poverty.  Improvements in environmental sanitation are the clearest and most effective policy-program tool for the Central government to reduce if not eliminate the excessively high levels of malnutrition in India.  The cross country compliments the Indian Inter-state study by showing that female primary education, is an important factor in  reducing child malnutrition, by helping spread information and knowledge about personal hygiene, sanitation and nutrition.


     The Food Security Act will have little or no effect on malnutrition, poverty and hunger.   Hunger can be eliminated if and only if the government and/or NGOs identify the 40 lakh affected households and ensure that cash or food reaches the principle female (mother) of the household.  An, “Elimination of Hunger Act”, with severe penalties for officials in whose area a hungry family is found, could do this at a small fraction of the cost.  Child malnutrition can be dramatically reduced, if not eliminated within a decade, through a massive “public health” campaign: This would insure a modern sewerage and sanitation system in every urban, semi-urban and semi-rural area and pure drinking water, septic tanks and lavatories in rural areas.

A version of this note appeared on the Op Ed page of the Times of India, of Feiday 7th June, 2013, under the banner, "What we need is not a Food Security Bill but a Hunger Elimination Act. 

[1] Arvind Virmani and P. V. Rajeev, “Excess Food Stocks, PDS and Procurement Policy,” Planning Commission Working Paper No. 5/2002PC, December 2001.
[2]  Arvind Virmani, “The Sudoku of Growth, Poverty and Malnutrition: Lessons For Lagging States,” Working Paper No. 2/2007-PC, Planning Commission, July  2007.
[3] Virmani, Arvind (2012), “Under Nourishment in Children: Causes of Inter-country variation,”  Working paper number WsWp 4/2012, October 2012.

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