Choosing The Best Option
‘Food security’ found a reference in the Prime Minister’s address to the nation, and almost every political party is trying to score ‘brownie’ points—some for having initiated the legislation, others for taking the lead in implementing it in the states(where the actual action lies), and the rest for speaking on behalf of the farmers, many of whom feel that farming may become unviable because of the twin impact of higher agricultural wage rates on the one hand, and the near universal coverage of PDS at subsidized rates in the rural areas.
There is need for a nuanced discussion on this subject. In the first place, let’s talk about points on which there is a clear consensus. The state has the duty and responsibility to ensure adequate food and nutrition to all its citizens, and in fact, the Right to Life guaranteed in the Constitution incorporates the right of access to wholesome food, clean air and affordable water. The question is whether this is best achieved through the PDS system, or by ensuing income security, or better still, livelihood security to the largest numbers. One must also reckon with the fact that while the ends of all three- food security, income security and livelihood security are similar—the externalities and long term implications are quite apart, and the focus of this column is precisely on understanding the ‘ripple effect’ of the three policy interventions. It is also the considered view of this writer that the focus should be on livelihood security—both through employment guarantee programmes and infrastructure development for agriculture production, especially water harvesting structures, rural roads, warehousing, nurseries and afforestation.
What is livelihood security? It is a guarantee that publicly funded employment will be available for at least one hundred days in a year—for all those willing to participate in it. The public works in turn lead to improvement in the productive capacities of land, especially when interventions are made on ponds, watersheds, water channels and related infrastructure. The EGS programme of Maharashtra, the precursor to the MNREGA transformed the barren landscape into productive horticulture plantations. This not only created the foundations of High Value agriculture, but also created long term assets, and regularity in employment. The third crop of Boro rice in West Bengal—which ensured that the state finally became self sufficient in food grains—was also the consequence of livelihood guarantee programmes. Such examples can be given from several districts of the country. Thus a successful livelihood programme transforms itself into a food safety net—because as farmers shift from single crops to multiple crops—or from subsistence farming to production with surplus, additional employment is generated, first within the families of the marginal farmer, and then for the landless households. Some have argued that livelihood security has pushed up rural wages. Yes. But this has had the positive impact of also improving productivity on farms and higher incidence of adoption of farm equipment and mechanization. Successful implementation of livelihood programmes in Bihar has significantly reduced the outmigration to Punjab, compelling Punjab farmers to get their filed harvested through combines, which in turn has given a big push to farm machinery suppliers and technical people involved in the operation and maintenance of these harvesters. Employment profile has moved up the value chain. It is true that we need to get these anecdotal narratives verified empirically before confirming this hypothesis: suffice it to say that no counter-factual have come to the notice of this writer.
Next we have income security—in its myriad forms from old age pensions to unemployment allowance and support for those with disabilities. This is comparatively easier to implement, especially as this involves direct transfer of cash to the account of the beneficiary and the assumption that the beneficiary is capable of, and willing to spend the income on ‘merit-goods’, and not fritter it on liquor or tobacco. There is also a debate on whether it would make greater sense to support poor families to pick up essential commodities from the market by transferring incomes, or issuing redeemable food coupons, redeemable at multiple outlets. In all such cases, the state takes the responsibility to transfer ‘cash/coupons’ without interfering in the logistics of food distribution, with all its attendant externalities.
This brings us the current format of the Food security Act in which the state takes the responsibility to reach food grains at highly subsidized rates to the nearest PDS outlet. Given the difference between the administered price of food, and the market price, the possibilities of collusion are extremely high. Moreover, when the net difference in a month’s entitlement for coarse grain, wheat and rice is only Rupees forty or sixty, there is definite push towards the consumption of wheat and rice. The ecological costs of producing rice are well known to bear repetition. In any case, if food security has to be achieved in conjunction with ecological stability, there should have been a greater shift to coarse cereals, and a gradual reduction in wheat and rice, especially the latter. However, this is not likely to happen, and there will be greater pressure to produce more rice, followed by wheat, which in turn calls for intensive agriculture with even higher application of fertilizer and water.
Food security should not be read in isolation, but placed in the context of our existing schemes of livelihood and income security—and if the ends can be achieved by the first two, it makes more policy sense to focus on them.
By Sanjeev Chopra
(An IAS Officer, the author is Joint Secretary & Mission Director, National Horticulture Mission, Government of India. The views expressed are personal.)