Let me start on a positive note. I was very happy to see that more than 400 Members of Parliament were discussing the key issue the country is facing: What to do with food? Given the level of poverty and malnutrition in the country, it is important that this topic should be at high level of discussion. So that’s the plus side.
How does the Food Security Bill solve the problem? First, we must ensure that the hype is out of the way. MPs opine that this Bill will banish hunger and malnutrition. We have to understand what is hunger and malnutrition. As per the National Sample Survey, hunger in the country is only two per cent. That means two per cent people go without food at night. So sufficient and nutritious food, is the real challenge.
Now, how far will the Bill will take us is the key issue. The Bill says that the government will give primarily 5 kg per person per month of cereals. To the Antyodaya beneficiaries, they will keep giving 7 kg. But what is the average consumption of cereals in the country? An average household consumes 10.7 kg of cereals per capita per month as per the NSSO survey. Whether this 5 kg is sufficient? Not at all! This is just half the requirement.
This means that for the other half, the beneficiaries will have to go the market. And what happens to the prices of the cereals in the open market because of this Bill also has consequences on that front. Today the cereal inflation in the country is 18% per annum and one of the main reasons for that is that the government is holding huge stocks of cereals. And they are holding the stock because they do not know how much they will need, so more the better. But more the better with the government means less in the market. And therefore higher the prices in the market.
In effect, what you are giving through Food Security Bill on one hand to the poor, the market is taking away the half of it from him, through food inflation.
Vegetable prices are 46% higher than last July. With wheat and rice, you need something. So you cannot ignore what is happening in the open market to other products.
Beneficiaries need some vegetables also. Protein products have seen 11% rate of inflation. So, overall food inflation is 12% per annum. It should be less than 4% per annum.
So if you are really caring about the poor, your top priority should be to bring down the food inflation from 12% to 4%.
Will it banish malnutrition? It is a misconceived notion. Our research shows that the key things that impact the malnutrition are clean drinking water, and hygiene. Even if you give food to the child, but he is consuming adulterated water, and is contacting diarrhoea every now and then, he will not be able to absorb any food. Second is sanitation.
Half the country is defecating in the open. Third is the female education – a critical factor in tackling malnutrition.
The dropout rate among the female is 80%. So it is a misconception that 5 kgs will solve the problem of malnutrition in the country.
Another major issue is sustainable agricultural production. In 2002-03, the food grain production dropped by 38 million tonnes in a single year. If you go to the world market to buy 5-10 million tonnes they start flaring up. At 38 million tonne, the very news of it will explode the world market. We need to invest heavily in stabilising agricultural production. Have we counted that in the Food Bill? Not at all.
So there is indeed a huge risk. In order to cover that risk, the government will have to keep a large stock, which means high cost. So the cost of the Bill will keep on increasing because of the large stock that you have to keep to avert any eventuality of a drought. And droughts are going to be a reality. Every fourth year in India is a drought year.
We have analysed last 50 years of data. Every 4.3 years is a drought. One cannot wish away drought from this land.
As told to Ashutosh Kumar