10 reasons why Amartya Sen is wrong about food security bill

The bill envisages to distribute highly subsidised rice and wheat to almost two-thirds of India's population of 1.2 billion.

Vivek Kaul May 07, 2013 18:20:55 IST
10 reasons why Amartya Sen is wrong about food security bill

Amartya Sen, who won the Nobel Prize for economics, in 1998, has been a big votary of the Food Security Bill being passed. "The case for passing this Bill is overwhelming...I would prefer this Bill to not having a Bill at all," Sen said at a press conference yesterday.

The bill envisages to distribute highly subsidised rice and wheat to almost two-thirds of India's population of 1.2 billion. In terms of its sheer size, this would be perhaps the biggest ever programme to distribute subsidised food grain to citizens of any country. And given this it is more than likely to have consequences, which the government of the day is either not thinking about or is simply not bothered about.

Given these consequences, Sen's support for the Bill seems more ideological than logical. This conclusion can be easily drawn after a quick reading of a report titled National Food Security Bill: Challenges and Options authored by Ashok Gulati, Jyoti Gujral and T Nandakumar (with Surbhi Jain, Sourabh Anand, Siddharth Rath, and Piyush Joshi) belonging to the Commission for Agricultural Costs and Prices (CACP), which is a part of the Ministry of Agriculture. This report was released in December 2012.

10 reasons why Amartya Sen is wrong about food security bill

Amartya Sen

The report highlights many reasons on why the Bill in its current form is a recipe for sheer disaster and is not desirable at all, and should be junked at the earliest opportunity.

1. The expenditure behind the food security bill is stated to be at Rs 1,20,000 crore. But this the CACP report feels is just the tip of the iceberg. This expenditure does not take into account "additional expenditure (that) is needed for the envisaged administrative set up, scaling up of operations, enhancement of production, investments for storage, movement, processing and market infrastructure etc."

So what is the likely cost of the food security bill going to be? "The total financial expenditure entailed will be around Rs 682,163 crore over a three year period," the report estimates. This is much higher than the Rs 1,20,000 crore per year estimate being made by the government. The question is where is this money going to come from? The government is already reeling under a very high fiscal deficit and is under pressure from international rating agencies to cut down on flab. A high fiscal deficit also means higher interest rates as the government will have to borrow more. It will also lead to higher inflation.

2. Estimates made by CACP suggest that over the next three years the cost of distributing rice and wheat at a subsidised price is going to come to Rs 5,12,428 crore. This calculation does not include other costs of creating the required infrastructure to run the scheme. Of this, the leakage is expected to be at 40.4 percent. So, nearly Rs 2,07,000 crore will be siphoned off by middlemen.

What is ironical is that the government wants to introduce the right to food security through its public distribution network rather than use a cash transfer system like Aadhar, which it has been creating parallely. The government's public distribution system is perhaps the biggest distribution system of its kind in the world. But it has virtually collapsed in several states leading to huge leakages.

"It may be noted that this Bill is being brought in Parliament to enact an Act when internationally, conditional cash transfers (CCTs), rather than physical distribution of subsidized food, have been found to be more efficient in achieving food and nutritional security," the report points out.

3. The Food Security Bill in its current forms works with the assumption that cereals like rice and wheat are central to the issue of food security. Rice and wheat will be made available at extremely subsidised prices as a part of right to food security. But the irony is that more and more Indians have moved away from cereals towards a protein based diet in the recent years.

As the report points out "As economic growth picks up, it is common to observe a change in dietary patterns wherein people substitute cereals with high-value food...Share of expenditure on cereals in total food expenditure has declined from 41 percent in 1987-88 to 29.1 percent in 2009-10 in rural areas and from 26.5 percent in 1987-88 to 22.4 percent in 2009-10 in urban areas. The Bill's focus on rice and wheat goes against the trend for many Indians who are gradually diversifying their diet to protein-rich foods such as dairy, eggs and poultry, as well as fruit and vegetables. There is a need for a more nuanced food security strategy which is not obsessed with macro-level food-grain availability."

4. A nuanced strategy is also needed because the right to food security also aims at improving the nutritional status of the population especially of women and children. But just ensuring that women and children have access to subsidised wheat and rice is not going to take care of this. As the report points out "Women's education, access to clean drinking water, availability of hygienic sanitation facilities are the prime prerequisites for improved nutrition. It needs to be recognised that malnutrition is a multi-dimensional problem and needs a multi-pronged strategy."

5. The right to food security creates a legal obligation for the government to distribute rice and wheat to those who are entitled. In order to fulfil this obligation the government will have to procure rice and wheat from the farmers. It currently does that through the Food Corporation of India(FCI) at a minimum support price(MSP). The MSP is declared in advance and the farmer knows what price he is going to get for the rice and wheat that he sells to the government.

The way the current system works is that FCI is obligated to buy all the rice or wheat that the farmer wants to sell as long as a certain quality standard is met. This has led to a situation where farmers find it favourable to produce rice and wheat because they have a ready buyer for all their produce, at a price they know in advance.

This has led to a severe imbalance in the production of oil seeds as well as pulses. As the report points out "India imported a whopping US$ 9.7 billion (Rs 46,242 crore) worth of edible oils in 2011-12 - a 47.5 percent jump from last year and pulses worth US$ 1.8 billion (Rs 8767 crore) during 2011-12- an increase of 16.4 percent as compared to last year."

To distribute rice and wheat under the right to food security the government will continue using FCI and keep declaring a minimum support price.

This means farmers will continue to get assured procurement when it comes to wheat and rice. And this will have several consequences. As the report points out "Assured procurement gives an incentive for farmers to produce cereals rather than diversify the production-basket...Vegetable production too may be affected - pushing food inflation further."

6. Indian agriculture is still highly dependent on rainfall with 50 percent of area under cultivation still at the mercy of good monsoons. Irrigation wherever its available is also dependent on rainfall. So what happens in a situation of drought? As the report points out "A case in point is the drought year 2002-03 where the production of wheat and rice fell by 28.5 million tonnes over the previous year (overall foodgrain production dropped by 38 million tonnes). It took 3 years to make up and it was only in 2006-07 that the production exceeded the 2001-02 level."

If a drought situation crops up, will the government resort to imports? Is it a feasible option? Turns out it is not. "Rice is a very thinly traded commodity, with only about 7 percent of world production being traded and five countries cornering three-fourths of the rice exports. The thinness and concentration of world rice markets imply that changes in production or consumption in major rice-trading countries have an amplified effect on world prices..This is especially true in the case of rice, as global markets are much smaller. India's entry into the international market as a large buyer could exert significant upward pressure on prices," the CACP report points out. Hence, any shortage of rice in India, is going to send world prices of rice through the roof. Also if the government continues procuring as much in a drought year as it has in previous years, it will leave very little of rice and wheat available for the open market, sending their prices through the roof.

7. The right to food security will mean that the government will use its public distribution system to distribute rice and wheat throughout the country. The trouble is that FCI, currently procures a major portion of rice and wheat from a few selective states. "70% of rice procurement is done from Punjab, AP, Chhattisgarh and UP while 80% of wheat procurement is done from Punjab, Haryana and MP alone," the report points out. This will need infrastructure to be created and that will cost money.

As the report points out "From a logistics point of view it could be cheaper to procure foodgrains from states like MP, Bihar, Gujarat etc and deliver the food-grains to neighbouring deficit states in central, eastern and western India rather than procure from a handful of surplus states in North and South and distribute food-grains across the deficit states in India. But such a system would need ramping up of procurement efforts in emerging surplus or self-sufficient states in cereals, such as Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, West Bengal, Assam, and Orissa." And that is easier said than done.

8. In many such states where the operations of FCI are huge, the government has become the number one procurer of rice and wheat. With right to food security coming in, this procurement is only going to go up. And that will create its own share of problems. "In several states like Punjab, Haryana, Andhra Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, and Chhattisgarh, one observes that the state is overwhelmingly dominant in procuring rice and/or wheat, leading to almost a situation of monopsony. Any further increase in procurement by the state would crowd out private sector operations with an adverse effect on overall efficiency of procurement and storage operations, as well as on magnitude of food subsidies and open market prices," the CACP report points out.

9. What has also been observed that FCI does not have economies of scale. As it procures more, its cost of procurement goes up. As the CACP report points out "The economic cost of procurement to Food Corporation of India (FCI) has been increasing over time with rising procurement levels - demonstrating that it suffers from diseconomies of scale with increasing levels of procurement26. Currently, the economic cost of FCI for acquiring, storing and distributing foodgrains is about 40 percent more than the procurement price." If right to food security becomes an Act, FCI's procurement of rice and wheat will go up, and so will its cost of procurement. This will mean a higher expenditure on part of the government.

10. The government will also have to keep increasing the MSP it offers on rice and wheat. This will have to be done to incentivise farmers to produce more rice and wheat to help the government distribute it to the entitled beneficiaries. The farm labour costs have been on their way up. As the report points out "There is an acute shortage of labour in agriculture that has suddenly cropped up in these three years. In some states, labour costs have gone up by more than 100% over the same period. Due to these rising costs, the margins of production for farmers have been declining both for paddy and wheat . Therefore, the government may have to raise procurement prices for rice and wheat to encourage farmers to increase production of these staples. As the cost of production of crops is rising, MSP can't be kept frozen." This means that the government expenditure on right to food subsidy will keep going up.

To conclude, its time Amartya Sen read this report and made himself aware of the problems the right to food security can create for India.

Vivek Kaul is a writer. He tweets @kaul_vivek

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