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'Make the food basket universal, nutritious'

Jul 06, 2010

Right to food should be interpreted as right to food for nutrition, says Prof Abhijit Sen, Member, Planning Commission. He suggested that the right be universal with special entitlements for the poor and should not be myopically interpreted with what is available in the PDS.

You can spot Prof Abhijit Sen now and then at public meetings, his long hair and beard setting him apart even among activists.  But Prof Sen is in a class of his own for more reasons than his striking presence. He is a member of the Planning Commission, India’s foremost think tank, and has chaired committees on grain management, rural credit, agricultural costs and prices and more. Development and poverty are subjects he has looked at closely over the years.


Prof Sen is currently on leave from Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU).  Unlike many others in academia, Prof Sen steps out of his office to talk to NGOs and peoples’ movements so that he has his own assessment of their ideas.

As the UPA grapples with drafting a law on food security, Prof Sen is uniquely poised to strike a balance between the demands of activists and the practicalities of grain management.

Right to food campaigners are unhappy with the government’s draft of the proposed law. They have demanded a universal Public Distribution System (PDS), an increase in entitlements, a wider basket of food, no cash transfers, local procurement etc.

The right to food movement is on a strong wicket. The movement began in Rajasthan in 2002 when severe drought left people without food or work.  Starvation deaths were reported but the dithering Union government would not release food or declare a state of famine.  Activist groups, like the People’s Union for Civil Liberties, approached the Supreme Court for justice. Since then the court has passed landmark judgments ordering midday meals in schools, a strengthening of government schemes like the Integrated Child Development Scheme, (ICDS), more food entitlements and so on.

The Union government is now mulling over the demands of the campaign. There are indications that an entitlement of 35 kg for people below the poverty line will be conceded but other demands have not as yet been approved.

Prof Sen agrees with the overarching concerns of the right to food movement but he has his own opinion which sets him apart from the campaign.  His advice is not to get bogged down in minute details but to look at a more holistic approach to food security. Extracts from an interview in his Planning Commission office :

Are you in broad agreement with the demands of the right to food movement?

My basic opinion is that a right to food should not and cannot be restricted to what is available in the PDS plus or minus a little bit. It is more than that. The right to food essentially begins with assuring availability, ensuring access to those who may not be able to afford it and then talks about food security and nutrition and links it to things like absorption.  Much of what we have got in India so far is about 35 kg or 25 kg at Rs 2 or Rs 3, or Rs 8.

To me that is a fundamental problem.

As far as the universal PDS is concerned, I am in broad support of the principle, not necessarily the detail, of the right to food movement. You cannot have a right which is defined only for someone called the poor. A right, if any, has to be the right of all citizens. Then you can say you are going to make special entitlements for the poor. But the right itself cannot be targeted towards any group, however poor it may be defined as being.

If the law tries to define a right only for the poor, the law inevitably would have to then define who the poor are and that would open up a huge set of issues. I don’t think its good in terms of principle and I think its bad in terms of practicality.

As a right you are saying it should be universal?

Yes, but there are problems. Even if we limit ourselves to rice and wheat and we say we will give 35 kg at Rs 3, or at least offer it, and if people take up the offer and demand those 35 kg, then we can’t meet this demand.  It’s as simple as that.

It would require something like 80 million tonnes of grain to pass through the PDS. The best the PDS has done so far is 43 million tonnes.  Therefore we run into not so much a fiscal constraint but a physical constraint of the availability of grain.

I also tend to agree with the right to food movement that this whole targeted public distribution system (TPDS), this division of the population into APL/BPL/AY, has not really done much good to anyone. We know that the lists on the basis of which people are divided into APL/BPL/AY are extremely bad. There are very large numbers of people who should not be in the list, but worse there are large numbers who should be on the list but are not there. It’s a poor list and it’s not targeting very well.

The system of having two or three different prices for the same commodity is an invitation for corruption. If you tell someone there are different prices for the same goods rather than the same price, there will be corruption. So it’s bad in its targeting ability and it creates incentives for unnecessary corruption.

Do you support a universal PDS?

In 2002 a report of a committee on grain management I had chaired actually said let us go back to what existed before the targeted PDS came.  Let us go back to before 1997 to the universal PDS. But that universal PDS is not what the right to food movement is asking for. They want higher amounts some 35 kg some 50 kg, they want Rs 2, Rs 3 as prices, they  want higher poverty numbers certainly higher than the Plan Commission, or  the Tendulkar numbers, possibly going up to 70 per cent of BPL (Below Poverty Line) or more.

What we had said is let’s have a universal entitlement but it should be of food at a price very close to which the government buys it, which would mean a price related to the Minimum Support Price (MSP) which the government promises to pay farmers. That was roughly the system that existed. Now what we have is that very large amounts of money are being transferred to those who have a BPL card, not necessarily the poor but those who are classified as poor, in the form of cheap food that did not exist before the targeted PDS.

What we are saying is let’s not mix up a system of food delivery in which the government tries to ensure supplies, from surplus areas to deficit areas, through periods of surplus to period of deficits, which is a pure grain management strategy. Let’s not confuse that with an income transfer strategy of getting food to those whom you think are the poor.

In 2002 we had 60 million tonnes of stock, we said separate these two. Take the money which is the difference between what you are giving the BPL and the APL, and give this directly to the states so that they can transfer the money to those whom they classify as poor. How they transfer it, leave it to them.

Let’s separate the stabilisation operation of the grain side from the income transfer operation.
But isn’t that the same thing?

It’s the same when it comes to the issue of who gets the income transfer but it is hugely different when it comes to the grain management side.  For two reasons. First, all the things I said about the inefficiencies  of having more than one price are there in one of them but not in the other. But more importantly,  and this is really harking back to that period, what the targeted PDS was doing  was carting huge amounts of grain to places like Orissa and Bihar where the numbers of the poor was high  and  depressing prices in those areas, so farmers there  were getting way below the MSP.

On the other hand, it was creating shortages in places like Kerala which are relatively richer but short of grain. So it was running counter to the objectives of grain management of getting grain from surplus to deficit areas and it was doing that because surplus areas and deficit areas are not co-terminus with areas that are rich. So in that sense I think the two are very different.

How do you think the right to food should be defined given that it is a political issue?

I don’t think it should be defined too strongly in terms of 35 kg at Rs 3 and poverty numbers and so on. I think it should be defined in terms of principles. Although some numbers would come in – the rules, notifications – I would say first of all it should say people have the right to demand and get adequate amounts of food wherever they may be at all times. It should say this food should be available at a price which is not unreasonable – that is, there should not be a large profit component in it.

The right to food should apply to a complete diet, not just one or two items.  It is about nutrition in its entirety. And nutrition, which we are hugely lacking, is not simply about food or what you eat, its as much about water, health, most importantly its about what happens just after birth, the first one hour, the first two years.

The government cannot promise that people will breastfeed their children. But what it should promise is a government support system for a whole aspect of nutrition which it will provide. We do have some of these things however badly they may be working, the ICDS for instance, and we do have through our health systems a certain degree of monitoring.

So this could be the opportunity to get not just reform of the PDS but reform of this entire set of systems, a government promise. One thing the right to food movement has done, and I totally commend them, is to put right to food on a justiciable agenda. The Supreme Court has given judgment after judgment particularly on the midday meal, the ICDS and the PDS. So there is a whole case law which has built up which the government is having to follow in any case.

I think if the government takes that case law and legislates that, with whatever it might want to add here and there, it will prevent the government from looking as if it is running behind the Supreme Court judgments. It would seem the government has legislated on something which is already the legal position.

And the right to food movement should be happy for this would actually have achieved in legislation what they have done through the judiciary.

There have to be certain commitments by governments to systems. I also agree that certain people have to be focused on more. I think the law should say that as a matter of responsibility by the government to those who are poor.

You are okay with the law saying that?

I am perfectly okay with the law saying that there are groups for whom special provision has to be made. I am also in favour of saying that access – those who are not in a position to afford what we can give through a PDS which is not unduly subsidised –  should be entitled to some sort of special treatment. Whether that special treatment is through a lower price or a cash transfer or any other means, is another matter. In 2002 we had said Antyodaya should be extended to cover all destitute and infirm people.

Should production of food be delinked from the food security bill?

Food availability begins with production. The law should say the government must make best efforts at ensuring adequate production. The law cannot say you must produce 80 million tonnes or 90 million tonnes. You can’t legally mandate a level of production especially when the monsoon affects it.  But you could say that the government should ensure that in every district of this country there is enough stock at any time, for everyone to be fed for one month,  during  which period if stocks are short it can be built up. Now that can be easily done.

Grains rot while children starve. Should we not reform this system?

Yes, except that the two systems are very different. You won’t be able to stop starvation by constructing godowns. The rotting part is something the media takes up, it makes an interesting image.

But isn’t it an issue?

On grains rotting, the figure that we have is that something like a million tonnes rotted in the last 10 years.  This year we will be buying 55 million tonnes in a single year.  One million is big, but when it happens over 10 years it is not the sort of thing which would make a big difference.

Isn’t scientific storage an issue?

See, the situation is as I said in 2002. We had 60 million tonnes of stocks. We had huge shortage of storage at that point, and all these issues had come up in a big way. The Food Corporation of India (FCI) by 2003 roughly had managed to get (storage for) 55 million tonnes. Then in 2005, 2006, 2007, when we exported part of our stocks and part of the stocks disappeared because of drought, stocks were down to 25 million tonnes. Then there were people saying why are you running such a huge number of godowns and things. So the FCI partly rented out some of those godowns which according to media reports are storing wine or whatever.

Clearly there is a problem of management. It is not as big a problem as it is made out to be. I would say we need a proper stocking policy which ensures that grain is stored not necessarily in Punjab and Haryana. What we should be having is quicker evacuation of that grain from surplus areas and their storage either at the consumer end, or at some intermediate place which is well connected by train. The best places would be Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan.

Shouldn’t we be storing in villages?

The starting point of this is the argument that why are you pushing rice and wheat when there are nutritious cereals like bajra, ragi.  This has been the case ever since we had the PDS.  We have by subsiding wheat and rice made it hugely attractive for farmers to grow these. We have had a huge disincentive towards coarse cereals. But part of that is also taste. The two can go together.

We are growing 40 million tonnes of coarse cereals. Out of that I would be surprised if more than 15 is consumed by people. A lot of it is for feed. The entire maize crop, the largest of our coarse cereals, is going into chicken feed or making starch.

Nonetheless there is the fact that in many tribal areas there is still a demand for small millets and we should be thinking of ways for them to store it. One reason we never got into it is because of the FCI’s experience. It attempts to store coarse cereals have been a total disaster. They don’t have the techniques for it.

Coarse cereals have rotted even in the best godowns. The only solution is local storage. There are government schemes which try to do it. Grain banks, for example, started as a scheme in the Ministry of Tribal Affairs. It was passed on to the food and distribution side. The model was provided by the Deccan Development Society. They had designed it.

Cash transfers in the PDS have been opposed.

Let the states decide. I said this in 2002. There are at least two chief ministers who are clear that they want to give cash —  Sheila Dikshit, chief minister of Delhi and Nitish Kumar, chief minister of Bihar. They say look here our system works so badly and we have consulted those who need it. We believe cash would be a better way of doing it. I agree with those who say cash transfers should be a last resort. But if a chief minister says the PDS is rotten, can I rubbish it?

Perhaps we should reform it.

Reforming the PDS is not an easy job. There are vested elements and corrupt elements. Smart cards, GIS, UID, can show some way out. But technology is not going to solve the problem of determining who is poor and who is not.

Soumendra Nath Ray says:
Nov 16, 2012 12:17 PM

Am pleased to read that a member of our planning commission has refined views on the problems plaguing the majority in our country. The clarity of Prof. Sen's views are clear on what to do and why, however, food grains in our country unfortunately fall into the whirlpool of implementation i.e. sourcing and distribution complexities.

Maybe we will see the government departments and bureaucracy putting the how to do it in place soon, by soon I mean the next 10 years.

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