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INDIA: Food Security Bill – Making sense of the media debate

An Article from the Asian Human Rights Commission
Simon Ladegaard Jakobsen
The Government of India, led by Congress, claim to be champions of the poor. In the upcoming election they will point out that they have given rights to all the poor; The National Rural Employment Gu
arantee Act (NREGA) (2005), The Right to Information Act (2005), The Forrest Rights Act (2006), the Right to Education Act (2009), and now the National Food Security Bill (NFSB). Expect lots of glittering advertisements and catchy slogans.

These are all important rights, but the problem is that they mostly only exist on paper. As S.K. Das (2013) argues in his book "India's Rights Revolution: Has it Worked for the Poor", the poor has not been able to realize these rights, which are therefore not really rights in any useful sense. For example, the NREGA has never truly delivered on its grand promises to provide a livelihood for the rural poor. The NREGA failed to facilitate adequate accountability, awareness, participation or transparency, and did thus not provide any guarantee that the poor would benefit. The Right to Information Bill, which was supposed to provide awareness and transparency, was ironically only known by 13 percent of the rural population in 2009 according to an evaluation by PwC made for the government. The result of the inadequate implementation of the NREGA was predictable – endemic corruption and exploitation of the rights of the poor. The absence of any functioning mechanisms for grievance redressal combined with a rich variety of ways for contractors and functionaries to extract money from the program have proved particularly damaging for the functioning of the program. This means that there is a huge gap between de jure rights (legally mandated) and de facto rights (in practice) for the poor. Since the UPA has not effectively implemented their "rights revolution", questions should be asked about their commitment to make the NFSB work.

The NFSB was signed into law the 12th of September. This is an important law, which recognizes that a large proportion of the Indian population continuous to live in deep poverty without opportunities of a decent livelihood despite the high growth since the 1990's. The bill is essential considering that the proportion of underweight children has increased to 43.5 percent from 41.1 percent between 1996 and 2012. This means that India is currently placed as 106th of 120 countries on the Global Hunger Index behind countries such as Rwanda, Sudan, and Niger. While the bill does make a minimum of food a legal right and broaden the base of beneficiaries, the entitlements of the individual have on average been reduced compared to the entitlement in the current schemes in the states.

At the same time, the debate in the media has largely been about the perceived unsustainable fiscal burden of the bill when in reality the costs will not increase dramatically when the increase in grain supply is only modest. Why does this discussion then dominate the debate on the Food Security Bill in a context where the GoI have failed to implement the rights of the people despite a rhetorical commitment to do so?

As long as we only discuss the numbers, the interesting questions will not be seriously addressed. Informed public discussion about the implementation of India's rights revolution will help put pressure on the Government to deliver on the promises on which its legitimacy rests.

The false dichotomy of rights and growth
While it is hard to argue against that the NFSB is necessary, the business community and a large proportion of the media still want us to believe that India should not have one. They will typically appeal to arguments about what they term as enormous cost of the bill and say that giving the people a legal right to food (or any other socio-economic right supporting a life in dignity) amounts to hindering economic growth. This claim is quite bizarre and counter conventional wisdom on long term sustainable growth since it completely disregards the importance of human capital. Malnourishment is one of India's main problems from a development perspective. In fact, goals as diverse as achieving universal education and gender inequality, reducing child mortality, and improving maternal health will not be achieved without relieving hunger and malnourishment. The World Bank rapport Repositioning Nutrition as Central to Development recommends investments in eradication of malnutrition as the best of all possible investments.  A conservative estimate of the cost of malnutrition in India is 4.2 percent of GDP in efficiency loss alone. Efficiency loss is the costs of a less productive labor force because of unnecessary deaths, reduced physical and mental capacity for work, and the lack of development of skills. Excluded from this estimate are costs associated with repeated grades in schools as well as increased public health care costs due to the major impact malnutrition has on short and long term health. Please note that this estimate is a conservative one due to lack of data. The UN has this year released estimates on countries in Africa showing much higher gains from eradicating malnutrition. Ethiopia, a country with a lower proportion of underweight children than India, is estimated to lose 16.5 percent of GNP because of child undernutrition alone. It then seems reasonable to assume that India is also losing more than 10 percent of GNP all things considered.

It would be difficult to credibly put the label "best investment of all available options" on generous tax exemptions (more than 17 times more than the additional food subsidy costs of the NFSB) or regressive subsidies on, among many others, electricity, fuel, and fertilizer for the relative affluent and above. This is an expensive prioritization reflecting special interests, and not concern for the development of India.
Since the Bill is necessary, the benefits of eradicating malnutrition are enormous, and the resources are available if prioritized better, it seems strange to keep talking about the bill's affordability. But by keeping the discussion going the real issues, such as the continuing neglect of the poor and the serious flaws of the schemes, will not be on the agenda. This might explain the varying quality of the different attempts of creating fear about the economic consequences of providing food for the poor. Every inflated estimate has either been based on wrong calculations or on numbers not available in the public realm (for an overview see Sinha (2013)). One could look at an article in The Financial Express written by Surjit Bhalla, a leading investment advisor, as an example. In the article Bhalla claims that the cost of food subsidies will increase by more than 300 percent as a result of the NFSB. But, as described elsewhere, he makes an amazingly simple calculation error despite provocatively challenging anyone to prove him wrong. Whether this error was made on purpose cannot be known, but it successfully created new fruitless discussion about the costs of the bill. This is very unfortunate since it is unclear whether the poor will actually benefit from the NFSB in its current state, and attention is needed to discuss this important question.

An in-depth analysis of the NFSB, and the prospect of implementing it, will be published in another article soon.

About the author: Mr. Jakobsen is a postgraduate candidate at Aarhus University. He is currently interning with the AHRC and can be reached at simon.jakobsen@ahrc.asia. This is first part of a 3 part article series on the Food Security Bill.
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About AHRC: The Asian Human Rights Commission is a regional non-governmental organisation that monitors human rights in Asia, documents violations and advocates for justice and institutional reform to ensure the protection and promotion of these rights. The Hong Kong-based group was founded in 1984.
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Posted by Imphal Dispatch on 22:35. Filed under . You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0

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