India: Govt move to reduce PDS food grain distribution pushes more to starvation Print E-mail

Volume 23 - Issue 01, January 14 - 27, 2006
Column
Stealing food from poor
By Jayati Ghosh

The UPA government's decision to reduce the amount of foodgrain distributed through the pubic distribution system will push more people into semi-starvation or open starvation, with a devastating effect on increasing nutritional deficiencies.

IT sounds incredible, but it is not. The government that came to power promising to "enhance the welfare and well-being of farmers, farm labour and workers, particularly those in the unorganised sector and assure a secure future for their families in every respect" is now choosing to attack one of the most basic requirements for the existence of these groups - access to adequate nutrition.

The United Progressive Alliance government's decision to cut the food subsidy by reducing the quantity of wheat and rice issued through the public distribution system (PDS) and Antyodaya Anna Yojana is appalling on all counts. According to this measure, the most vulnerable households in the country, which are entitled to receive some foodgrain at lower, more subsidised prices, will now receive 5 kg less of food grain a month.

And this snatching of food from the mouths of millions of infants and destitute people is expected to yield "saved resources" to the tune of Rs.4,524 crores - around the same amount that was given up by the same government last year when it chose to do away completely with the capital gains tax. Clearly, the government feels that domestic and foreign financial speculators on the stock market are more in need of public support than Antyodaya households, who are defined as the poorest of the poor.

Yet this was not the declared perception of the government a year ago. The National Common Minimum Programme of the UPA government explicitly promised a comprehensive medium-term strategy for food and nutrition security. It went even further, promising that "the objective will be to move towards universal food security over time, if found feasible. The UPA government will strengthen the PDS) particularly in the poorest and backward blocks of the country... Special schemes to reach foodgrains to the most destitute and infirm will be launched. Grain banks in chronically food-scarce areas will be established. Antyodaya cards for all households at risk of hunger will be introduced."

There was a reason for making such promises: the evidence of falling food consumption norms among most of the population and widespread, and in some places worsening, nutritional deficiencies. Per capita food grain consumption declined from 476 grams a day in 1990 to only 418 grams a day in 2001, and even aggregate calorific consumption per capita declined from just over 2,200 calories a day in 1987-1988 to around 2,150 in 1999-2000.

This decline was marked even among the bottom 40 per cent of the population, where it was unlikely to reflect the Engels curve type shifts in consumer choice, but rather relative prices and the inability to consume enough food due to income constraints. At least half the children in India are born with severe protein deficiency (which affects brain development and learning capacity). Anaemia and iron deficiency are also widespread and severe problems.

These problems had become acute in the latter phase of the National Democratic Alliance government's rule, and they - along with the agrarian crisis and lack of gainful employment - were among the crucial reasons for public disaffection. The UPA government, therefore, declared that food security would be one of its major areas of focus.

But in the past year and a half, the problem of food security for ordinary people remains intense and may even have worsened in several regions. Reports from the field point to chronic and severe undernutrition, even hunger deaths, from parts of the country as disparate as Andhra Pradesh and Rajasthan. In Maharashtra, the State government admitted to the High Court that 2,814 children, mainly from tribal areas, had died of starvation between January and July 2005. But in other areas, the government is simply in denial and the reports of hunger have come from other independent sources.

While increasing food insecurity reflects the more general crisis of livelihood and is therefore quite widespread, the worst affected groups are probably Dalit and tribal groups who are already economically marginalised. A recent report from the Centre for Environment and Food Security on the political economy of hunger in Adivasi areas provided some frightening information.

This report was based on a survey of 1,000 households in 40 sample villages in mainly tribal areas of Rajasthan and Jharkhand. It revealed that 99 per cent of the households were facing chronic and endemic hunger. 25 per cent had faced semi-starvation during the previous week and another 24 per cent in the previous month. Out of the 500 Adivasi households surveyed in Rajasthan, not a single one had secured two square meals for the whole of the previous year.

Only four respondents out of 1,000 said they had eaten two square meals the previous day. Out of the remaining households, 48 per cent had eaten two poor/partial meals, 35 per cent got one poor/partial meal plus one distress meal, 11 per cent could get just one poor/partial meal, 0.2 per cent had eaten only one distress meal and 5 per cent had eaten only jungle food on the previous day.

People in 87 per cent of the surveyed Adivasi households in Rajasthan and Jharkhand ate no or hardly any pulses or animal products and therefore suffered from severe protein deficiency, which made them vulnerable to many opportunistic diseases. In fact, it is accepted even by local officials that severe protein deficiency among the children is responsible for very high infant mortality rate in these areas.

Of course, this study refers to areas where the PDS is very limited and most of the people do not have access, but even here, 90 per cent of respondents said their food security had weakened over the past two decades. But these are precisely the groups that are supposed to be reached by the PDS and the Antyodaya scheme.

In most other countries of the world, such a situation would have been described as a crisis and caused national emergencies to be declared, with alarm bells ringing in government corridors. But it is in this context of persistent and even extreme hunger that the government has chosen to reduce the amount of foodgrain distributed under the PDS.

Reduction of the already small amounts available under PDS for the below the poverty line households (usually 35 kg a month) and Antyodaya households (usually 25 kg a month) will dramatically weaken what is already a very fragile food balance. It may push many more people into semi-starvation or open starvation, as well as have a devastating effect on increasing nutritional deficiencies that have major effects on development. It is completely the opposite of what was promised in terms of more food security for the vulnerable.

But that is not the only adverse implication of this extremely retrograde step. Essentially, this impacts upon the entire system of procurement and distribution since it will limit the turnover of the Food Corporation of India and affect its ability to undertake procurement at minimum support prices of crops. In the past two years, procurement, offtake and stocks of foodgrains with the Food Corporation of India (FCI) have been steadily falling, as the chart indicates.

It is likely that the current attempt to reduce the disbursal of grain through the PDS reflects the shortage of food stocks with the FCI, since stocks are now down to a low of around 15 million tonnes. And this has to be seen in a broader context of an implicit running down of the entire system, and in particular of the FCI, leaving the space open for private grain traders, including multinationals. In a context of severe agrarian crisis, ensuring food security requires a system of crop procurement that provides price stability to farmers and ensures enough grain to meet the requirements of consumers, especially the poor. Instead, precisely the opposite is being done.

The bitter irony is that while this measure will certainly damage the food security of the poor, it may not actually save the government as much money as it seems to think. We already have the experience of misguided policies, which have directly damaged food security in the mid 1990s, when attempts to reduce the Central government's food subsidy by increasing the price of food in the PDS led to declining sales and excess holding of food stocks. These meant more losses, and therefore a larger level of food subsidy, even as more people within the country went hungry.

It is inexcusable that even with that experience, and the current evidence of widespread hunger and malnutrition, the government could even contemplate such a move.