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A hasty and stunted legislation for food security in India

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The United Progressive Alliance in India, the ruling political coalition at whose centre is the Congress party, has called it “a historic initiative for ensuring food and nutritional security to the people”. By this is meant The National Food Security Bill, which was passed by the Lok Sabha on 26 August 2013.

In recent weeks, criticisms of the provisions of the bill and suggestions for its amendment gathered quickly, from political parties, from state governments, from civil society and NGOs and academics, and from citizens who have followed the twists and turns of the draft legislation since 2010. How many of these have been incorporated into the bill as passed by the Lok Sabha is still unclear, but a government press release stated that ten amendments were approved. I don’t know which ten but these would be small in number compared with the scores of amendments, corrections, modifications and re-draftings suggested by groups and coalitions that have long worked for food security in India and its states.

Sifting through news reports for relevant information, I find that:

(1) The government has said that the word ‘meal’ as used in the approved bill means hot cooked or pre-cooked and heated food and not the packaged food, which was a definition that provoked many when it was spotted in the draft. This is an important amendment as it has an impact on the enormous mid-day meals (for schoolchildren in government schools) and the integrated child development services (ICDS) programmes, which reach tens of millions. The fear was that packaged food would supplant, to the detriment of the children, hot and fresh cooked meals.

(2) As far as I can make out, another approved amendment gives states a year to implement the bill instead of six months. Earlier, under the ordinance (whose passage was roundly condemned), the central government was to determine the number of eligible beneficiaries in each state. Not only was this centrist in nature, it required the process by which beneficiary households were to be identified to be completed within 180 days, even though the guidelines for such identification are yet to be issued by the central government. Moreover, there has been no consultation with the states on this aspect.

(3) There is some reference made to the states determining their approach and measures towards implementing the bill, which will be (or may be) governed by “rules” that are to be drawn up in consultation with the state governments. This is important for, in the text of the Food Security Ordinance the central government reserved the right to introduce cash schemes instead of food in the Rules of the proposed legislation. This had signalled quite clearly its longer-term agenda of dismantling the system of procurement of grain from farmers at notified minimum support prices.

The reportage of the passing of the bill has touched upon a variety of issues and concerns, and here is a selection:

Lok Sabha passes Food Security Bill
Sonia Gandhi’s ambitious food bill gets Lok Sabha nod; UPA gets its ‘game-changer’
The Food Security Bill will cost a lot more than projected
Food security bill: Is it right or fight to food?
Long due, Food Security Bill meets mixed reaction
Food Bill will not raise fiscal deficit: Chidambaram
‘Not against Food Security Bill, but want certain changes’: BJP
Food Security a ‘historic opportunity’ or mere ‘vote security’?
Food security Bill gets Lok Sabha nod as Sonia lauds ’empowerment revolution’

The government has said that the Bill will cover 75% of the rural population and 50% percent of the urban population in all states, coming to an average of 67% for the total national population. This however will use (we await a full reading of the approved amendments that will clarify this matter) the methodology of the Planning Commission for poverty estimates which is to provide the basis for dividing the population between below and above the poverty line. This is the same methodology and ratios that have been soundly discredited.

The point that has been made forcefully by the Communist Party of India Marxist (CPIM) is that these caps on population compromise utterly the right of state governments to decide criteria as contained in the bill. The caps are set by Planning Commission methods, not by state governments themselves. That is why the guidelines that are to be drafted – via consultation, the central government has said – by the state governments must ensure the maximum inclusion, and not the limited inclusion decided by the Planning Commission.

Moreover, the All India Kisan Sabha at its 33rd All India Conference (24-27 July 2013 in Cuddalore, Tamil Nadu) had in a resolution of food security described the policy canvas against which this food security bill has now been passed:

“India has become more food-insecure over the last decade in terms of all three dimensions of food security: availability, access and absorption. Availability has been undermined by policies reducing productivity growth and making grain cultivation unremunerative. Access has been weakened by jobless growth and massive inflation destroying people’s purchasing power. Absorption has been undermined by the failure to invest in safe drinking water and sanitation. All three consequences are directly traceable to neoliberal policies. Yet, the UPA government hypocritically talks of food security and has promulgated a so-called Food Security Ordinance in an attempt to gain political mileage while flouting all norms of parliamentary democracy.”

Documents for reference:

The National Food Security Bill, 2013
The National Food Security Bill, 2011
The National Food Security Ordinance, 2013
Report of the expert committee on the national food security bill
Lok Sabha Standing Committee report on National Food Security Bill
Food subsidy and its utilisation
NRAA – Challenges of food security

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For whom do the FAO and its director-general work?

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A farmer accompanies his cattle through the fields of Uttara Kannada district, in the state of Karnataka, south India.

A farmer accompanies his cattle through the fields of Uttara Kannada district, in the state of Karnataka, south India.

For farmers small and large?  For the tens of millions of food-consuming households, poor or just getting by?  For the governments and bureaucracies of small countries who want to import less and grow more?  For the organic cultivators on their small densely bio-diverse plots?  Or for the world’s large food production, trading, and retail corporations, whose influence is wide and whose power is vast? [This is an extract from the full article at Monthly Review’s MRZine.]

FAO director-general Jose Graziano da Silva

There is the continuing if travel-stained hope — held by so many of us, those who work at humble stations in the food and agriculture sector — that, of all those whom the director-general of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO of the United Nations) does work for, it is not that last.  But, since 2011 June, when José Graziano da Silva became the head of the FAO, the signs have been otherwise, and they are growing stronger with each passing month.

What effect does this have on the way the 190-odd member states of the UN deal with agriculture and food, with nutrition and food security, with making food affordable?  A great deal.  These are questions the member states of the FAO (and of the UN) have faced since 1945, with the end of World War Two.  If you read this passage, it helps illustrate how little has changed from one point of view, and how much has, from another, far more insidious and destabilizing point of view:

. . . [S]ome of the basic problems that have afflicted humanity since the beginning of society remain unsolved.  Large parts of the world still suffer from hunger, and the threat of famine is ever present.  Today we are confronted by a new challenge in human history which, if not faced, could sweep away the little progress we have so far achieved — this is the upward surge of world population at a rate never experienced before.

That was the fourth director-general of the FAO, B. R. Sen of India, and he said these words during his inaugural address at the First African Regional Conference held in Lagos, Nigeria, on 3 November 1960.

Sen appealed “… to our Member Governments not only to discuss their problems, but also to avail themselves of the knowledge and skills FAO has acquired over many years in the fields of agricultural development and food production and distribution.”  He said: “While the increase of agricultural productivity must remain the sine qua non of economic development of the less developed regions, the importance of education, public health and institutional factors must be recognised in any plan of balanced economic development.”

The FAO 'real' food price index. What will a private sector 'political commitment' do to these trends?

The FAO ‘real’ food price index. What will a private sector ‘political commitment’ do to these trends?

As you see, it has been over 50 years and few of the deficits recorded then have been banished.  How could they have been?  In the years — the decades — since 1960, many a development theory has been advanced only to be discarded . . . but not before the worst of them were thrust upon poor folk and choiceless urban dwellers, as they are now.

Only the armory of the food giants today is far more potent than it ever has been.  And still more powerful will they become, if championed by the FAO as they currently are.  Graziano da Silva at the end of 2012 November said that the private sector can make an important contribution to the fight against poverty and hunger and promote sustainable food production and consumption.  Where did he say this?  At the FAO Headquarters, to participants whose associations represent more than five thousand companies, during the first in a series of planned dialogues on what the FAO is calling “private sector involvement in poverty- and hunger-reduction initiatives.”

This is deeply worrying.  Food companies, global grain traders, commodities exchanges, multi-national food retail chains, and large processed-food corporations have been using all the means they could muster to influence the FAO during the 2001-10 decade.  Now, under Graziano da Silva, the gates have opened wide in a manner that was still resisted during the tenure of his immediate predecessor, Jacques Diouf (1994-2011), and could hardly be countenanced during the tenure of Edouard Saouma (1976-1993).  What would those who came before — A. H. Boerma (1968-1975), B. R. Sen (1956-1967), P. V. Cardon (1954-1956), N. E. Dodd (1948-21), and J. B. Orr (1945-1948) — have thought of such a swerve marketward?

Indigenous and organic cereals displayed in Bangalore, Karnataka

Indigenous and organic cereals displayed in Bangalore, Karnataka

The signs came early.  In 2011 October, for the World Food Day of that year, Graziano da Silva in an article wrote of “boosting investments in agriculture and food security” but didn’t say whether he meant public investment or private.  What he did do was extol what he believes are the benefits of “boosting cash flows into economically stagnant rural communities,” as the FAO release of that day explained.  The director-general’s words were: “Cash transfers and cash-for-work programmes work in the same way as rain on dry soil, allowing these communities to bloom once again.”

It was a turn of metaphor that, when similarly used by him in an article about eleven months later, infuriated 109 farmers’ and peasants’ movements and associations.  Graziano da Silva and Suma Chakrabarti, the president of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD), wrote an article published in the Wall Street Journal on 6 September 2012.  In the article, they called on governments and social organizations to embrace the private sector as the main engine for global food production.

mrzine_logo“The language used by Graziano da Silva and Chakrabarti is offensive,” said the signatories to the common statement issued by the 109 organizations.  “Phrases like ‘fertilize this land with money’ or ‘make life easier for the world’s hungry’ call into question the FAO’s ability to do its job with the necessary rigor and independence from large agribusiness companies and fulfill the UN mandate to eradicate hunger and improve the living conditions of rural people.”[You can read the rest on MRZine.]

Written by makanaka

December 5, 2012 at 16:35

Who’s poor and who isn’t – the flawed $1.25 formula

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The $1.25 a day poverty line is neither realistic nor is it any use to governments of less industrialised countries. It is time this ‘global poverty line’ is rejected.

An early stage shanty settlement of rural labourers, in Maharashtra, western India

Once again a major international thinktank has released a ‘big picture’ prognosis about global poverty. Once again the $1.25 a day line has been used to confirm that in developing countries, poverty is on the retreat and that the current model of economics is working for the poor by yanking them over that troublesome dollar line.

This time, the thinktank is the Brookings Institution, USA. Here’s their bottomline. Most of the poverty reduction we have seen in the last decade has happened because of the economic growth in China and India, where, until the end of the 20th century, a large number of the world’s poor lived. That growth in Asia not being matched by similar growth in Africa is the reason, Brookings has explained, for Nigeria heading towards being home to the largest population of poor by 2015, more so even than India. Poverty will be an African problem, according to Brookings.

As many other high-profile thinktanks have done over the years, Brookings has proferred its poverty prognostications [pdf] based on a few givens in the world of macroeconomics. One is that $1.25 a day, the World Bank’s revision of its own dollar-a-day definition which is now of some vintage, is the most reliable way to set a global poverty line. Two is that economic growth has brought many people in developing countries out of poverty and will continue to do so. Three is that the kind of growth that we have witnessed (and participated in) in China is the best anti-poverty solution to be found.

A vegetable vendor pushes his cart over a bridge across the river Ganga, near Kanpur, Uttar Pradesh, India

Based on these ‘givens’, which I shall turn to in a moment, the world’s development specialists and macroeconomists who measure poverty have lately been waxing enthusiastic about the prospect of providing all poor people in the world cash supplements, which they are sure will bring them out of poverty. The cost, they say, is relatively quite small, at about $66 billion. This cash transfer, to each and every poor person, will cost less now than it would have done only five years ago, they have said.

Well, yes and no. All programmes, even ones that distribute cash to people, cost money to run. If you have to distribute on a regular basis enough money to enough poor people at the rate of more than $1.25 a day, that distribution itself is going to be huge and enormously complicated, and of course quie expensive too. Faced with this question, they do have a ready answer, which goes something like this: recent advances in biometric identification technologies—such as fingerprint and iris scanning—have greatly expanded the promise of implementing large-scale welfare programs in poor countries. No doubt, the technology is there and it has been proven to work. However we who work in the field know well that a gizmo in the hand is not exactly worth a meal on the table, so to speak.

That’s the nuts-and-bolts part of the proposal to buy our way out of poverty. A far more troublesome set of questions concerns the ‘givens’ this whole idea is based on. Let’s look again at $1.25 a day to start with. In most developing countries, this is in mid-2011 equivalent to about a litre of petrol. It will buy about three kilos of rice in some countries, pay for two autorickshaw commutes in others, or buy 10-15 litres of water in some cities (this year on World Water Day the UN said that “Someone living in an informal settlement in Nairobi pays 5 to 7 times more for a litre of water than an average North American citizen”).

Built-up shanties along a Mumbai highway, leading to suburbs bristling with expensive new high-rise residential blocks.

That daily line also works out to $37.50 (EUR 26.25) a month. What can an individual buy with that much for a month? Can she buy shelter which does not leak when it rains, can she buy baby food for her children and medicines for her aging parents? Can she pay for schoolfees? Can she afford even a kilowatt hour of electric power a day with that money? Can she stock her kitchen with the cereal, fresh vegetable and lentils her family needs? Never mind $1.25 a day – can she do this on $2 a day in Cairo, Mumbai, Rio de Janeiro or Nairobi?

I can’t see a ‘yes’ answer to any of those questions, anywhere. Next, on what basis do the thinktanks and multilateral lending banks (World Bank, IMF) continue to say that economic growth removes poverty? They use variations of the GDP-divided-by-population formula, and ask th macroeconomists to make the appropriate adjustments for income categories and rural-urban distribution. The trouble is, the real world of poverty doesn’t function the way these models and formulae do. Economic growth has meant the continuing and deepening inequality of income. The ‘richer’ a country gets based on GDP, the more unequal the distribution of the money amongst its people. That’s the very reason the ‘advanced’ economies of Western Europe and North America put in place social safety nets (whose very much poorer cousins are the cash transfer programmes in vogue nowadays).

The truth is plainer and far more visible. There is no let-up in poverty, not in the numbers of poor, and not in how far under the poverty line they are. Any other view may be well-intentioned but misguided. [Thanks to From Poverty To Power, the blog by Duncan Green of Oxfam, for mentioning the Brookings report.]

Written by makanaka

July 31, 2011 at 01:24