NAC undermined

Published : Mar 11, 2011 00:00 IST

By stubbornly overruling the National Advisory Council, the government risks defeating its purpose as a body that speaks for the poor and the disadvantaged.

HAS the Manmohan Singh government begun to regard the National Advisory Council (NAC) as an adversary who should be undermined? Going by their exchanges on key issues such as food security, wages under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA), and the implementation of the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest-Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006, and the Right to Information (RTI) Act, it would seem so. The Ministers and bureaucrats concerned have rejected or summarily dismissed as unworkable each of the NAC's recommendations on numerous issues.

Less than a year after it was established, the NAC is being treated by officialdom as if it were a liability, a body packed with idealists, romantics and, to use a favourite expression of the Right, bleeding-heart liberals who neither understand practical realities, nor are in tune with the right economic policies.

The signal that the NAC's proposals on the proposed National Food Security Bill (NFSB) have to be moderated or overruled came from none other than Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. In September, he expressed his opposition to the idea that anyone, including the dirt-poor and destitute, should be given food virtually free.

When the Supreme Court asked the government why it preferred letting food rot in its godowns to giving it away, Manmohan Singh was vehement that this was not just possible. He reiterated this later too.

This has little to do with possibility or feasibility; it is about moral judgment, in particular, Manmohan Singh's refusal to give a higher priority to fighting starvation and malnourishment than defending market forces and demand-supply balances. Manmohan Singh said giving food away free will kill the farmer's incentive to produce and adversely affect prices and wages.

He told the Supreme Court not to interfere in policy and administrative matters. His uncharacteristically harsh remarks speak of his strong convictions on the food security issue, which Manmohan Singh rarely shows on most others. A prominent exception is the United States-India nuclear deal, which Manmohan Singh doggedly pushed through by manipulative, Machiavellian means.

The NAC originally based its NFSB recommendations on a universal public distribution system (PDS), in keeping with the government's solemn pledge, expressed through President Pratibha Patil's address to Parliament on June 4, 2009, to enact a National Food Security Act to provide a statutory basis for a framework which assures food security for all.

Only a universal PDS can entitle every Indian to adequate food to prevent starvation and under-nutrition. It alone can tackle the twin hazards of exclusion (of those who most need affordable access to food) and inclusion (of the non-poor in entitlements meant for the poor) associated with targeted schemes. The NAC also added two other components: maternity and child support (including mid-day meals), and nutrition for especially vulnerable groups such as destitutes, immigrants and calamity-affected people.

The NAC came under pressure to dilute the PDS' universal character. It limited the provision of subsidised grain to 75 per cent of India's population, including 90 per cent of rural people and 50 per cent of city-dwellers, with different entitlements and prices for the priority and general categories, which broadly correspond to the Tendulkar Committee's below- and above-poverty-line classes.

The pressure came from none other than Manmohan Singh and was transmitted through Planning Commission and Agriculture Ministry functionaries, and by NAC members such as Narendra Jadhav, a hard-boiled neoliberal.

Manmohan Singh was not satisfied even with the NAC's now-diluted recommendations, which would entail procuring and distributing 57 million tonnes in the first phase and 64 million tonnes by 2014, including 8 million tonnes for non-PDS entitlements. This is under 30 per cent of India's output of rice and wheat, estimated at 188 million tonnes for 2011-12 and 192 million tonnes for 2013-14.

In November, 2010, Manmohan Singh appointed the Rangarajan Committee to do a hatchet job on the NAC's recommendations. It duly delivered. It made questionable assumptions about PDS offtake, overestimated grain requirements at 64-74 million tonnes, and concluded that this could not be realistically procured domestically without unduly raising demand and prices, and sending PDS costs sky-high. Importing what remains would raise global grain prices and make the PDS more exorbitant.

The Rangarajan Committee's estimates assume a 100-per cent offtake of PDS entitlements. But even under a universal PDS (as in Tamil Nadu, or earlier in Kerala), the rich self-select themselves out, to the extent of 30 per cent. Procurement has been growing at 5 per cent a year, and 70 million tonnes-plus can be easily managed without excessively upsetting the market.

Procurement currently depends primarily on four States. There is considerable untapped potential in 13 others, including West Bengal, Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Tamil Nadu, to yield another 15 million tonnes. Between 2002 and 2008, an annual average of 7.9 million tonnes of foodgrains was exported. A complete ban on exports would help procure an additional 8 million tonnes.

Decentralised procurement and addition of millets will improve availability, at low prices. Even if there is a severe drought, the PDS shortfall would be about 4-5 million tonnes, a tiny proportion of global trade, which would not sharply raise world food prices.

Surely, implementing a PDS of this size is not too high a price to pay to overcome starvation and under-nutrition and make all Indians food secure. NAC members estimate this would add Rs.2,000-10,000 crore to our existing food subsidy bill (Rs.70,000 crore). This is a fraction of the government's revenues, which have risen three-and-a-half-fold over six years to Rs.800,000 crore. Rejecting such a scheme on fiscal grounds shows extraordinary callousness.


The Rangarajan Committee's appointment has sent a strong signal to Ministers and bureaucrats on official predilections. They have adopted a hostile attitude to the NAC on a range of other issues too. Thus, the Ministry of Tribal Affairs (MoTA) has rejected all NAC recommendations on the implementation of the Forest Rights Act (FRA). A worthy law that restores alienated land to forest-dwellers and empowers their gram sabhas, the FRA remains poorly implemented. Almost 90 per cent of forest-dwellers' claims have been rejected.

The NAC proposed a bottom-up process of recognition of forest land rights (to which those living on forest lands for 75 years, dependent for their livelihoods on forests, and in occupations since December 2005 are entitled); greater transparency; secure access to forest produce; and effective veto power over diversion of forest land to non-forest uses (which was blatantly violated in the Posco case). The MoTA rejected all these.

The NAC strongly recommended that NREGA workers be paid the statutory minimum wage. This is an elementary imperative. But the Rural Development Ministry arbitrarily froze the wage at Rs.100 a day in January 2009. All that Manmohan Singh agreed to do after the NAC's pleas is to link the Rs.100 to the Consumer Price Index for Agricultural Labour to protect real wages. This means that some 13 million households from eight States, or 31 per cent of those covered by the scheme, are still deprived of the minimum wage.

The Supreme Court has said the minimum wage must be paid in any event, irrespective of the financial condition of the establishment or availability of workers at lower wages. The minimum wage sets the lowest limit below which wages cannot be allowed to sink in all humanity; paying anything lower amounts to forced labour. Manmohan Singh has sanctioned this.

The NAC's recommendations on the RTI have also been dismissed by the Department of Personnel and Training (DoPT) as infeasible. The NAC opposes the DoPT-proposed 250-word limit on each RTI query. It opposes the DoPT proposal to recover from the applicant the expenses incurred by the authorities to furnish the information. The DoPT has accepted this, but still wants Rs.50 for postal expenses. The DoPT would like an RTI to lapse on the applicant's death. The NAC opposes this.

By stubbornly overruling the NAC, the government risks defeating the purpose of creating an advisory body that speaks for the poor and the disadvantaged. The 14-member NAC consists primarily of retired civil servants, scholars and responsible civil society activists with experience of service delivery. It was seen as the voice of conscience in the United Progressive Alliance (UPA), and an acknowledgement that the growth process has failed to address poverty, hunger, deprivation and lack of social opportunity.

In its first avatar, the NAC succeeded in pushing the NREGA, the FRA and the RTI partly with support from Members of Parliament belonging to the Left parties. But that link is now broken.

In its second avatar, the NAC is being stymied by the UPA. If the government fails to act as a forum of inclusive, pro- aam aadmi growth, and works merely as a facilitator of corporate investment and market forces, it will turn its back on the poor and the disadvantaged.

The UPA no longer emphasises equitable growth or growth with equity. Rather, it is becoming a slave to GDPism, or the obsessive pursuit of growth, while awkwardly outsourcing equity through paltry, anaemic, social sector programmes. If it is not to lose all credibility, the UPA government must urgently correct course.

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