Tackling hunger

Published : Aug 27, 2010 00:00 IST

The NAC suggests steps to ensure food security, but its recommendation for selective universalisation' of the PDS is criticised.

in New Delhi

INDIA is home to some 230 million undernourished people that is, 27 per cent of all undernourished people in the world. Worse still, more than half of all child deaths in India are because of malnutrition, and over 1.5 million children in the country are at the risk of being malnourished because of the rising food prices. According to figures released by the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) last year, more than 70 per cent of the children under five in India are anaemic and 40 per cent of the women have chronic energy deficiency. The WFP report came down heavily on the most extensive poverty alleviation programme in the country, the targeted public distribution system (PDS), for failing to help the needy because of imperfect information, inexact measurement of household characteristics, corruption and inefficiency.

Other statistics on India's poverty are equally dismal. According to a World Bank estimate, over 42 per cent of India's population of 1.35 billion lives below the poverty line. The latest Planning Commission figures peg this at 27.5 per cent. Significantly, more than 75 per cent of the poor live in rural areas. In this context, the proposed food security law comes as a welcome relief. However, the newly constituted National Advisory Council's (NAC) recommendations on food security have attracted criticism from some quarters.

The NAC, headed by Congress president Sonia Gandhi, has as its members Dr M.S. Swaminathan, agricultural scientist; Aruna Roy, social activist; Jean Dreze, development economist; Narendra Jadhav, member of the Planning Commission; Harsh Mander, former bureaucrat and activist; Prof. Pramod Tandon, Vice-Chancellor of the North-Eastern Hill University; Anu Aga, businesswoman and philanthropist; Deep Joshi, Farah Naqvi, Madhav Gadgil and Mirai Chatterji, all renowned civil society activists; Dr N.C. Saxena, former bureaucrat known for his contribution to the Forest Rights Act; A.K. Shiva Kumar, economist; and Dr Ram Dayal Munda, former Vice-Chancellor of Ranchi University and an authority on tribal issues.

Selective targeting

In its meeting held on July 14, the NAC forwarded to the government a set of recommendations to be incorporated into the food security Bill. They include universalisation of the PDS in one-fourth of the most disadvantaged districts or blocks in the first year, where every household will be entitled to 35 kg of foodgrains a month at Rs.3 a kg. For other districts/blocks, the NAC has recommended differentiated entitlements (in terms of quantity and price), which would be progressively extended to all rural areas over a reasonable period of time.

For urban areas, the NAC has recommended that eligible households (identified by the Planning Commission as per the Hashim Committee report), including slum-dwellers and the homeless, will be entitled to 35 kg of foodgrains a month at Rs.3 a kg. The council has also recommended comprehensive nutrition support schemes for the most vulnerable sections, namely infants, adolescent girls, pregnant women, street children, the homeless, the aged and the infirm, leprosy patients, and those with TB, HIV/AIDS, and so on.

The NAC's working group on food security, it was also resolved, would work comprehensively on measures to enhance agricultural production, improve the PDS and introduce procurement reforms. It will also look at systems of oversight, transparency, accountability and grievance redressal.

Critics, however, say selective targeting could lead to corruption and a new type of discrimination. As Brinda Karat, CPI(M) Member of Parliament, has pointed out in an article in The Hindu, taking up just one-fourth of the most disadvantaged districts/blocks, or 150 of the total 640 districts in the country, would mean that equally poor people would get different treatment from the government on the basis of their geographical location. For example, a poor man in a not-so-disadvantaged district in Kerala will never be able to get foodgrains at a subsidised rate.

Besides, the criteria for those in the urban areas, which are yet to be defined, are too ambiguous, says Brinda Karat. For complete universalisation, too, she says, there is no clarity because the recommendations say over a reasonable period of time. According to her, this lets the government keep the issue hanging indefinitely with regard to uncovered areas.

The NAC has compromised on the basic issue of universalisation. What it is suggesting is a differently targeted system, she writes.

Such criticism notwithstanding, the initiative, which promises to set in motion the food security Act, needs to be given due credit, all the more because the NAC's contribution to the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS) and the Right to Information (RTI) Act is there for all to see. Besides, the credibility of the NAC members imbues the initiative with promise. According to M.S. Swaminathan, NAC members held discussions with Ministry officials, Planning Commission members and civil society activists before finalising the recommendations.

Given the influence that the NAC wields in the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) regime, it is a foregone conclusion that its recommendations will find their way into the Bill, said an NAC member. There is merit in his confidence because the landmark RTI and NREGA Acts are now acknowledged by one and all to be greatly responsible for bringing the Congress back to power at the Centre.

The NAC, which was constituted with much fanfare during the previous UPA regime, was disbanded in March 2006 in the wake of the office-of-profit controversy involving Sonia Gandhi. The high-profile council had then earned the sobriquet Sonia Gandhi's kitchen cabinet. It was reconstituted on June 1, but unlike last time it did not have a set agenda to follow, which is now evolving. According to a senior Congressman, the council was constituted as realisation had finally dawned on the Congress high command that the first year of UPA-II had no substantive achievement in the social sector.

Social sector agenda

Our victory in the 2009 elections had a lot to do with social sector programmes such as the NREGA, the RTI and the NRHM [National Rural Health Mission], which came into existence mainly because of the push given by the NAC. In the euphoria of our unexpected electoral victory, we forgot the social sector agenda in the last one year, and the formation of the NAC is a step in trying to correct that mistake. The party certainly wants to be seen as pushing key social sector reforms, said a senior Congressman who is known to be close to the party president.

The NAC may not have a blueprint for action yet, but the names of its members give one an idea of what one can expect in the days to come. The right to food legislation, the communal violence Bill and a review of the development outreach in tribal areas are on the anvil, says Aruna Roy.

According to Dr Munda, his inclusion in the high-profile institution does indicate that the Congress president was seized of the problems in the tribal areas. This is the first time that a representative from the tribal areas has been included in the council. There may not be any agenda yet, but I will certainly try and push forward the problems in the tribal areas. Naxalism is not the only problem; it is merely a manifestation of many other problems. It is a long story of broken promises, but now it seems the time to revisit those promises has come, says Munda.

According to Harsh Mander, notwithstanding the criticism that the council is an extra-constitutional authority, which he says could be due to differences in perception, this is essentially a forum to give voice to the complaints of those who have been left behind in the process of development. Apart from the legislation on food security and prevention of communal violence, his wish list consists of issues relating to tribal rights and land reforms. For Anu Aga, a delivery mechanism for well-intentioned schemes like the NREGA is the top priority as she feels it is important to monitor whether the benefits of such schemes were reaching the needy. Besides, she says, malnourishment, good-quality basic education, skill development among children and communal harmony are other issues she would like to push forward.

However, a section of the political establishment is sceptical of the NAC's role. In an interview to a prominent news channel, Bharatiya Janata Party president Nitin Gadkari raised doubts about the efficacy of the council and vaguely hinted at Maoist supporters being a part of it. But owing mainly to the credibility of those who have been nominated to the council, the voices of criticism have so far been few.

If the end result is good, if this body actually becomes effective in giving a pro-people direction to the government's policies, then these little things can be overlooked. We are waiting and watching to see how it shapes up, says D. Raja, leader of the Communist Party of India.

Abani Ray, another Left leader, agrees. No doubt it is a super council, an extra-constitutional authority, but if it manages to give good advice to the government and if this results in pro-poor policies, then these things can be overlooked, he says. But he is quick to add that accountability does matter.

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