The Broad Mind | Food Security Act – an idea whose time is long overdue?

The cabinet has reportedly cleared the Food Security Bill for introduction in the winter session of Parliament. With this, another round of spirited, but often vitupirative debates has started. For a country that has the largest proportion of malnourished children, the tenor of the opposition is startling, and in case sympotomatic, a scary reflection of middle class sensitivities of the day.

Let us look at some of the objections to the Act.

1. It is too expensive, and we cant afford it.
This is the oft-repeated argument, that the Bill is fiscally ruinous and there is no way it can be afforded. And what is the estimated cost to the fisc? Well, depending on who is doing the maths, it ranges from 30,000 crores to 1 lac crores. Lets take the upper boundary. And as a perspective, compare this against the subsidy on oil (estimated to be touching 60000 crores this year), or indeed, taxes foregone on account of exemptions (mind you, distortionary exemptions, not tax rate rationalisaitons) add up to 6-7 times that number.

Are sops to the middle class of India and vested corporate interests (which is what most exemptions are for) more critical than ensuring a healthier new generation?

2. PDS is too inefficient, and cant be trusted to deliver
An old chestnut, but continuing as a red herring! PDS has been historically inefficient, but has made rapid progress in recent years. Driven by states like Tamil Nadu and Chattisgarh, and bolstered by measures like RTI and innovations in technology, PDS wastages have been reduced drastically. Not just in the exemplar states mentioned above, but almost across the board. The Centre’s showpiece UID project is a prime variable to be used to increasae efficiencies even further! The Food Security Bill should be used as an opportunity to carry out more innovations in delivery, not throw up hands in depair!

3. Cash transfers and food stamps are more “efficient” options
Somewhat similar to arguments made in support of “fortified biscuits” in lieu of hot meals in the mid day meal programme for school kids. Cash transfers are a great idea, but not for solving the issue of access. Food security addresses issues of both affordibility AND access.

4. It will be beyond India’s means in terms of availability terms
The biggest non sequitor that is peddled about. The total requirement, and in these programmes (just as in NREGA), actuals always come out lower than estimates as larger sections of the populace migrate to superior foods (and superior jobs). The estimated foodgrain procurement for the Food Security bill is 60 million tons, that is exactly the ballpark number being procured today. Without even accouting for a natural growth in procurements that has been over the trend growth in agriculture itself.

At a basic level, it is fundamentally about what sort of country do we want to build. Will we as a society agree to a stunted growth of our new generation? Or will we do all that we can (and some more, if required) to reverse that trend. At the cost, if necessary, of a few less exemptions on real estate projects masquerading as SEZs.

DISCLAIMER: This is an archived post from the Indian National Interest blogroll. Views expressed are those of the blogger's and do not represent The Takshashila Institution’s view.