The Economist last week ran an article criticizing India’s ‘Right to Food’ legislation. Independent food policy specialist Swati Narayan responds. She also has a piece on the Right to Food on the Guardian’s website today.
The Economist article ‘The Indian Exception’ is timely and asks just the right puzzling questions ― why is India an economic (and cricket) powerhouse, but a nutritional weakling?
I agree with some parts of the diagnosis, especially the need for redistribution. But, the prescription of conditional cash transfers entirely misses the wood for the trees.
So let’s peel the onion ― starting with the outer layers of the prognosis.
Cash or Food or both?
“Giving cash, rather than food itself, would be better. Better still, India should look to international experience and introduce a conditional cash-transfer scheme, such as Brazil’s Bolsa Família, which pays the mother if her children attend school….”
Yes, India can learn much from international experiences — but not blindly. After all, Brazil’s population is only one-sixth that of India’s gargantuan 1.2 billion. Besides, India already has a network of half a million fair price shops to deliver cheap food. All government schools already provide a meal to each child.
A new cash transfer scheme, which depends on whether children regularly ‘attend’ school, would be a logistical nightmare to implement. And an open invitation to corruption. Bangladesh’s targeted primary education stipends show the dangers of giving power to the petty bureaucracy to act as gate-keepers to determine eligibility, especially when corruption is already high.
An unconditional universal cash grant to all families, in addition to existing food transfers, is of course welcome. But the budgetary implications of that would be truly awe-inspiring! Even South Africa, has so far rejected the excellent civil society BIG (Basic Income Grant) proposal as unaffordable.
Also, Bolsa Familia is only one of several integrated initiatives of Brazil’s Fome Zero (Zero Hunger) strategy which rests on the foundation of constitutional guarantees to the ‘right to food’. It includes food banks, community kitchens, school meals, procurement of locally-produced foods to support smallholder farmers, crop insurance etc.
India’s legislation too is a step in this multi-dimensional direction. The draft national food security bill (NFSB) proposals clearly include a lot more than only cheap food.
Targeted or Universal?
“…learn from schemes that target those who need help…”
Maybe it is prudent for some small countries to target limited pockets of hunger. But what do you do when three-quarters of your population needs help. Poverty is widespread in India. 80 percent of Indians live on less than 20 rupees (less than 50 cents) per day. Food insecurity is even more diffused — as malnutrition has seeped into affluent families. Doesn’t it make logical sense and wouldn’t it be more cost-effective then to have a universal food security programme?
Unfortunately, the current NFSB proposal of ‘90 percent of country dwellers and 50 percent of city folk’ is not universal – but remains targeted. Not only does it exclude the more affluent on top of the food chain, but also creates two superfluous sub-divisions within eligible families. So far, it seems to have missed a historical opportunity to entirely do away with targeting, which plagues the current food distribution system with millions of genuinely needy families excluded.
Don’t Blame Mothers
“Bad practice plays some part—notably a reluctance to breastfeed babies.”
Yes, in a few pockets of rural India, families do hold medieval superstitions against breastfeeding babies with the colostrum (protein and antibody-rich milk produced around the moment of birth).
But it is perverse to blame mothers. Children need to be fed several times a day. But most impoverished rural mothers work all day with no crèche facilities or the luxury to take breaks. As Mrs Khan rightly points out, “Out in the fields, it is terrible.”
The NFSB does propose wide-ranging benefits for mothers — cash for 6 months before and after birth, take-home rations and breastfeeding counselling.
“farming has not shared in the same dazzling success as the rest of the economy”
That is an understatement. Indian agriculture is in an unprecedented state of disrepair as symbolised by the wave of farmer suicides in the last 15 years. Besides, 40 percent of the rural population is effectively landless – i.e. they don’t own any land apart from their homesteads. So sustainable elimination of hunger cannot only rely on food schemes, but also requires the effective implementation of land reforms, minimum wages, farmer subsidies and a host of other complementary initiatives.
The draft legislation does have a few gems on this front — from promoting minimum support prices for small farmers across states and the production and consumption of nutritious and affordable coarse millets.
Strengthen, Don’t Write Off
“Such a programme would hugely expand the terminally dysfunctional PDS.”
Yes, it is no secret that India’s Public Distribution System (PDS) is plagued with corruption and often doesn’t deliver. But it is nowhere near “terminally dysfunctional.” States like Chhattisgarh, Tamilnadu and Kerala have shown how it can be turned around. The NFSB also details a range of systematic reforms. And plans are apparently afoot to repair the state run nurseries.
And it is here that the most promising aspect of the NFSB comes in. It calls for the creation of a new decentralised administrative cadre across India’s 627 districts for redressing grievances, with a single-minded focus on monitoring food schemes. This may well be the next generation in the evolution of rights-based legislation, 2.0.
Conclusion? Don’t write off India’s food security legislation. With more than a quarter of the world’s hungry living here, every grain counts.
And here’s a more in depth (8 page) briefing from Swati on Why India is Losing Its War on Hunger.