For the past few days and weeks, I have been wracking my brains to find the best form of the argument for the national food security bill for India.
Let’s leave aside for the moment the fiscal cost of the bill, any distortions of agricultural markets, inefficiency of the supply systems, mis-targeting of the grains and the signals it sends to investors. These are all serious problems of various magnitudes, and those magnitudes are contested. However, they still refer to the unintended consequences of the FSB rather talk about its stated or intended benefits.
The best form of the argument that I can come up with for the food security bill is this:
Inexpensive cereals can address malnutrition and hunger.
Readers are welcome to contest this one line statement and suggest one of their own. Hunger is a problem that we have all but solved in India, thanks in large part to the Green Revolution, better infrastructure and a rise in incomes. Only 2 percent of India self-report that they do not always get to eat 2 square meals a day, compared to 67 percent of the population that the FSB wants to cover. Make no mistake, 2 percent of India’s population is still a whopping 24 million people. These 24 million people are also largely concentrated in pockets that have several other problems such as maoist violence and the lack of even basic infrastructure. Their needs, however, are perhaps best addressed by an idea that Arvind Virmani proposed: an ‘elimination of hunger’ act that works in a targeted manner to address just this problem.
Malnutrition remains a large national problem that hasn’t been sufficiently addressed to date. I have argued in the past in Pragati that malnutrition is largely a sanitation problem (and perhaps a nutritional knowledge problem) and not one of insufficient grain supply. Several others have written on the nutrition-sanitation link as well.
Thus if malnutrition and hunger are set aside from the primary outcomes of the food security bill, all that remains is a government-sponsored income supplement to 67 percent of India’s population. If we were to openly admit that as the goal – then we can discuss as to how best we can go about providing that income supplement. (The Acorn calls it theft – which it is, legitimate or no.) Unconditional cash transfers, conditional transfers and food vouchers are all means of providing an income supplement. To impose a monopoly supply of cheap grains through a leaky government setup on 800+ million people who range from the residents of an isolated hamlet to urban slum dwellers is ludicrous.
Malnutrition and ‘food security’ have been subjects of national debate for the better part of 2013. The sanitation community missed a great opportunity to shift some of the national focus onto sanitation, a debate which has remained fixated on a the idea of a public grain supply system. Sanitation is one of the toughest public policy challenges that India faces, and opportunities that have been squandered are very difficult to come by.
There are two difficulties with public drives and investments in sanitation: first, it isn’t a problem you can just throw money at. It needs a change in public behaviour and attitudes, and it requires a rethink on some of the systems. Second, it gives very poor political and electoral returns. But to even get there we need sustained public attention and rigorous debate that isn’t restricted to department officials, think tanks and sectoral experts. Jairam Ramesh remains the sole politician who has been persuaded to the cause of sanitation to date. It’s a shame that this opportunity was missed to persuade a few more.