It is a crying shame that 35 crore people go to bed hungry every day in our country. This is 35% of India’s population and 50% of the world’s hungry (though India’s population is only 15% of the world’s population). India also has the ignominy of having the largest number of malnourished children and women in the world.
During the last two years the problem of hunger and malnutrition has aggravated further due to the unprecedented rise in food prices. The government has not done anything to check this rise. It has blamed the poor monsoon (though the food prices had soared before the effects of the poor monsoon could be felt) and has also blamed the international prices (though even in bad years India has more than enough to fulfill the needs of all its people if used justly and judiciously). Now it is saying that people should wait for a few more months for the price rise to be controlled.
The people have been repeatedly raising the demand that the government should increase the scope of the Public Distribution System (PDS) and bring down the prices.
In response to these demands, there is a Bill being introduced in the parliament to enact the National Food Security Act (NFSA). A study of the provisions of this Act reveals that this is a misnomer, as it will not provide food security to all the people even if it is enacted. Firstly, this Act is confined to providing 25 kg of food grain a month only to BPL (Below the Poverty Line) families. Currently, about 40% of the BPL people come within the ambit of the Antyodaya scheme and they are supposed to get 35 kg of food grain. So for these people, there will be a reduction in the monthly allowance. Moreover, no new machinery is being proposed to implement the new law. The NFSA will be administered through the present PDS. People are very upset with the present working of the PDS as they get little benefit from it. This is why the NFSA should be opposed.
The TPDS (Targetted PDS) has deprived the majority of our people of what they were supposed to get under the earlier scheme. Firstly there is no agreement among various agencies appointed by the Government of India (GOI) about who should be counted as below the poverty line. Various estimates give different numbers of BPL people. The Planning Commission claims that the poor constitute 26% of the population. This is the number officially accepted today. But based on the Tendulkar Committee, which was set up by the Planning Commission itself, 36% of the population is poor. According to the Saxena Committee, which was set up by the Ministry of Rural Development, 50% of the people are poor. Also according to the Arjun Sengupta Report, 77% of the people live with Rs.20/- per day or less. By any reckoning, these should definitely be categorized as poor!
A really serious flaw is that BPL cards (yellow ration cards) are issued on the basis of the official number of poor as decreed by the Planning Commission. The Central government sets quotas for each state to issue yellow cards. It is a well known fact that people with the appropriate “connections” get the yellow cards, whereas crores of much more poorer people do not. Some states have issued yellow cards to every family while in some other states there are not even half as many sanctioned by the Central government.
The targeted PDS (TPDS) was started in 1997 after the drive to reduce all subsidies to the people under the New Economic Policy (NEP) of the government. From the time it was introduced, the number of fair price shops has been drastically cut down. The commission to the shopkeepers has not changed for over a decade and is still supposed to be only 8 paise/kg. This commission is supposed to cover the cost of transportation from FCI godown also. It is not possible for honest fair price shopkeepers to make ends meet, and consequently a large number of shops have closed down. The owners of those that are still there resort to all kinds of malpractices and sell the grains in black market, thus making even less food available to people.
Another issue is that the PDS allocation for the State is decided based on the previous year’s actual utilization of the allocation. The allocation is cut down if the state government does not utilize the entire allocation in the previous years. Consequently, the food distributed through PDS has been falling steadily year after year. Within 13 years, the amount of grain distributed through fair price shops in many states has fallen to only 10% of its earlier value, despite the increase in the number of poor and hungry!
Would we be wrong to say that the aim of the TDPS was to help wind down the PDS?
Before the Rabi crop arrived this year, the government had a stock of 4 crore tons of wheat and rice. For meeting any eventualities, the government is supposed to maintain 2 crore tons. When the Rabi crop procurement is completed, another 2 crore tons of wheat are expected to be added, taking the stock to 6 crore tons. FCI godowns have covered storage capacity for less than 2 crore tons of food grain. So the rest is stored outside, where a part of it gets damaged and is eaten by rats. Despite such a huge stock the price of wheat has been rising!
It is predictable that government will say after a few months that they will have to export wheat to liquidate the stock. Once India announces its intention to export, the international prices will fall. The government is buying wheat at Rs.11/ kg, yet it will end up exporting at less than Rs.8/kg. This means in effect that overseas buyers will be subsidized by Rs.3 /kg by the same GOI that is reluctant to subsidize the Indian people!
Due to good wheat production, farmers are forced to sell wheat right now below the Minimum Support Price (MSP) of Rs.11 /kg. Low wheat price this year will lead to reduction in the amount of wheat sowing in the next year, which will lead to shortage after one or two years. The government will then say we have to import wheat to meet the shortage. This cycle of export-import has already repeated many times. This has been going on for years and not just for wheat but also for other food items like sugar.
Food self-sufficiency policy has been abandoned and the policy of allowing export or import has been implemented. The aim of the policy is not to provide adequate quantities and quality of food stuff to working people but to maximize the profits of the big food trading corporations, which include both Indian and multi-national companies. These are the companies in whose benefit the food policy of India is being decided.
In view of the above, our demands are:
- Every family unit (of 5 people) in the country should get 35 kg of food grains per month, i.e., 7 kg per person, at an affordable price of Rs.3/kg,. This is the price that the poor can afford, as per the government itself.
- All other items of mass consumption should be available (like sugar, oil, dals, salt, kerosene, soap, etc.) at affordable price.
- The government itself has identified 13 essential commodities; they all should be available to all through PDS.
- Along with the availability of food grains to all through PDS, the government must ensure remunerative prices to the farmers. The support prices are increasing marginally every year while the cost of inputs is increasing must faster. We have to demand that farmers are provided input at price assumed to estimate the MSP. To give a family unit of 5, 35 kg/month, 9 crore tons of grains are required, while the total annual production of grain is 20 crore tons in the country.
- The government does not procure many grains like jowar and bajra which are nutritious and popular. We demand the inclusion of all food grains consumed by the people under PDS as well as fixation of MSP and procurement system for them.
- We also demand that wholesale trade should be taken out of private hands and that the distribution of food grains should be under people’s control.
- The amount of ration should be decided on a per person, and not per family, basis, as it is today, to ensure that everyone is adequately fed. Nutritious food in adequate quantity at affordable prices and of good quality is the right of every person. People should have the right to get the kind of food they need. That is, we need a universal PDS. The government should take responsibility to distribute grains to ration shop owners. The control of PDS should be in the hands of the people’s committees.
From where will the money come?
If every family unit is provided 35 kg per month at Rs.3/kg, then the government needs to spend just Rs.1,20,000 crore per annum.
The Defence expenditure of the government itself is Rs.1,70,000 crore of which 70% is for acquisition of new armaments. So if arms purchase is stopped everybody can be provided with food.
The interest and debt payment to financial institutions for one year is over Rs. 3,00,000 crore. A big portion of this money can be saved if the government announces a moratorium on debt repayment to the big financial institutions. Compared to the government’s response to the food crisis, when the economic crisis started in 2008, the government spent Rs.2,10,000 crore to bail out the big capitalists and their companies. Three stimulus packages were announced in a matter of a few months.
There is also a direct link of the food price rises and crisis with the TDPS. At one shot, the government reduced its spending to one-fourth. The policy of import and export of food is directly linked with it.
Taking all this into account, we cannot accept that the government does not have the money needed to feed the people. Feeding the people must be the primary responsibility of the government and its first priority.
Lok Raj Sangathan, like many other organizations, is fighting for a universal public distribution system. We are also organising Lok Raj Samitis in different areas to fight for people’s rights, including the implementation of various provisions for ration cards and ration that exist today only on paper. We appeal to you to join us and strengthen our struggle.
Lok Raj Sangathan calls upon everyone to organize people’s committees to:
- Oppose all attempts to cut back our rights, like the National Food Security Bill in its present form!
- Fight for a Universal Public Distribution System where all essentials are supplied in adequate quantity and of good quality at prices affordable to all the people!
- Demand a cutback on unproductive government expenditures to provide for the right to food for all!
Statement of Lok Raj Sangathan on the proposed National Food Security Act