Tag Archives | Food Security Bill

The Best Form of the Argument

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.

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Lines in the sand

The latest poverty figures for India show that it has declined to just 22 percent as of 2011-12, based on data from the National Sample Survey. At a time when information such as this is coming out, many including my colleagues have asked why heavily subsidised food grains are aimed at some 67% of the population, when only 22 percent are poor. This is a question that cannot be asked often enough, but it is important not to make the mistake of linking any government schemes to the poverty line.

The ‘poverty line’ is a line in the sand. There is always a certain amount of arbitrariness to it. However, its primary (and perhaps only) purpose is to see how many people cross it over time. There are two main reasons why this line is tricky to draw: first, we are not a country where all citizens and residents pay income tax. So there are no direct ways to measure income. We measure incomes indirectly, based on surveys of what people consume – through national sample surveys. Warts and all, these surveys still provide the best information we can get on people and their habits. It was this data on consumption that was used by the economist Suresh Tendulkar to revise the ‘poverty line’ based on expenditure on food, education, health and a few other things.

The second reason why the line is tricky to draw is because the cost of these items of expenditure changes. Not only that, but people’s preferences (especially for food) are also changing with time. It helps to look at the poverty line as a rubber band that’s stretched and held taut, while people move across it. Over time, the rubber gets fatigued and droops a little, and needs to be made taut again, to accurately make a line that is comparable to the older one. To look at this as numerical jugglery or falsehood is just plain wrong.

This objective drawing of the line has shown that since the 90s, millions upon millions of Indians have crossed above the poverty line from below. The same was shown to be true for the most recent period of 2004-05 to 2011-12 as well, with the latest numbers.

Linking schemes with entitlements and benefits to this poverty line is an exercise that will ruin the objectivity of the line, and subject it to more political pressures than what it already subject to. The ideal situation is one where using NSS data, economists can come up with robust inclusion and exclusion criteria (like owning a refridgerator, for example) that is capable of doing two things with reasonable accuracy: select ~22 percent of the  population, and have the highest achievable overlap with those considered below the poverty line. This is notionally done even today for most schemes targeted at the poor, but the criteria are updated very slowly and the extent of mis-targeting is immense.

Just today, an argument is made in the Hindu that the government of India is slowly rejecting the legitimacy of the Tendulkar line and various departments are de facto drawing a much higher poverty line, one which includes about 65% of the Indian population below it.

We can argue endlessly about what “true” poverty is, whether the Tendulkar line only represents “kutta-billi” poverty, to use NC Saxena’s colourful phrase, and whether the de facto attempt at redrawing this is more “humane”. What matters is this: even and especially if the criteria for the Tendulkar poverty line is low, 22 percent of India lives below it. And they do so whether we lump them with 45 to 50 percent of the population above them or not. Economic growth, education and better provision of public goods are steadily increasing incomes and prosperity across India.

The simple question is: while people are pulling themselves out of poverty, do we support 1 in 5 people with some form of welfare with the limited resources at the state’s disposal, or do we use those same resources to support 3 out of 5 people? Which is more humane? And let us not forget, it is those same resources that are also used to provide better public goods and services.

We need an objective, consistent poverty line to reliably measure the outcome of poverty reduction. And we need to target welfare schemes only to those who need it the most.

Addendum. My colleague Nitin Pai also writes in The Acorn on the use and misuse of poverty lines.

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No food security without sanitation

Debate has been raging on the Food Security Bill in India for quite a while now, at least in the English press and online commentary. Until recently, the role of sanitation in malnutrition (and by extension, in food security) was largely missing from the public discourse. This prompted me to write an article in Pragati back in May:

While the National Food Security Bill proponents have been looking at nutrition as a ‘gross’ problem which requires more input in the form of cheaper food, the reality is that it is largely a ‘net’ problem. Far too much nutrition is lost to recurring diarrhoea, dysentery, persistent worm infestations and chronic environmental enteropathy linked to open defecation and a lack of sanitation. People in 69 percent of rural Indian households continue to defecate in the open. While most of the urban population uses toilets, little human waste gets collected and treated properly.

It is ludicrous that sanitation has not been made a priority in development policies addressing malnutrition. While the official government of India position has always been that malnutrition is ‘complex, multidimensional and inter-generational’, the interventions have largely been about targeted and non-targeted nutritional interventions, subsidized healthcare, and with token mention of clean drinking water supply and sanitation. This is like giving dysentery patients subsidized food and medicine, and asking them to eat more, and stopping the medical advice there. In the absence of focus on sanitation, what we have is taxpayer-funded diarrhea and little else. [Think Sanitation, Not Food Security | Pragati – May 2013 PDF]

It has been encouraging to see that the popular discourse has changed significantly in the last month, with sanitation and clean water getting  due recognition for their role in nutrition and food security. Several excellent articles have been written on the subject in that time.

Business Standard published an editorial early in June, questioning the assumptions behind the food security bill and arguing against rushing it through, while citing a lack of sanitation as one of several important reasons behind malnutrition.

Arvind Virmani wrote in the Times of India on how we need a ‘hunger elimitation’ act coupled with a strong policy focus on clean water, sanitation and communication about good nutrition instead of a gargantuan food security bill. Dr. Virmani, a former advisor to the Planning Commission and a Chief Economic Advisor to the Government of India, has written extensively on the topic even in the past as well.

Adi Narayan wrote a well-researched piece in Bloomberg on how extra food means nothing to stunted kids with bad water.

Robert Chambers (most famous for his development of Participatory Rural Appraisals) co-authored an article with Gregor von Medeazza in the Economic & Political Weekly on sanitation and stunting in India, on the link between sanitation and undernutrition in the country.

And most recently, Sadanand Dhume also critiqued the ‘hunger games’ in India, calling instead for a fix of the woeful public sanitation in the country.

Much of the credit for this goes to some excellent research done by Dean Spears, currently heading a start-up RICE Institute in Uttar Pradesh. While there is a whole body of research on sanitation and health, Spears catalysed the field with original analyses of large, disparate datasets.

All said, it is unlikely that anything will stop the current government from their pursuit of this ill-considered bill. One can but hope that in the long run, sanitation occupies a larger portion of the public mindspace when it comes to matters of nutrition, health and food security.

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