Mature arguments please!

October 16th is celebrated every year around the world as ‘World Food Day’ in the honor of the date of establishment of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in 1945. Incidentally, the ‘Food’ has been trending in the Indian policy discourse as well over the past few months. The chief reason that this subject has garnered a lot of attention in India is due to the National Food Security Act 2013 (NFSA), which was signed into a law almost a month before the World Food Day.

This post underlines that the arguments put forward by policy makers in favor of this act are half-baked at best and untrue or unclear at worst. There are essentially three major problems with these arguments:

First, the arguments start and end on one single bullet point

All policy discourse by groups and individuals lauding the act have one single basis – that India has around 860 million people living on an income of less than $2 a day and hence are in a grave need of assistance from the state. The narrative further says that this section earns so less that it is unable to afford food and thus  the government needs to step in and provide rice, wheat and coarse grains at heavily reduced prices. As an example of how shallow these arguments are, have a look at the video here. The arguments target the problem of poverty and suggest a solution based on an assumption that providing heavily subsidized grains will bring an end to India’s problems of hunger and malnutrition in one shot. However, such a shallow argument is just not good enough and lacks sufficient evidence to prove its effectiveness in handling the problem of poverty. Many states like Tamil Nadu and Chattisgarh have already implemented such Food Security Acts in the past and thus there should be enough data available to study the impact of these acts on the people of these regions. A more potent argument, therefore would be to give the numbers of how these states have brought down hunger and increased the living standards of people. If there is credible evidence to prove that this has indeed happened, then no cost is high enough for the state to bring in such a legislation to benefit the needy.

Second, The Act aims to solve a problem that exists at a much smaller scale than we are made to believe

The argument that 860 million people (67% of the population) in India, are hungry is totally incorrect and baseless. In fact hunger is NOT a problem in India anymore. As the government’s own NSSO data of 2009-10 reveals, the proportion of households not getting two square meals a day is about 1 per cent in rural India and 0.4 per cent in urban India in 2009- 10. So shouldn’t it be a priority of the state to look after these unfortunate 1 percent of the population alone instead of giving freebies to the remaining 66%?

Third: The arguments conveniently neglect opportunity costs.

Even though around 99% households of India are not hungry anymore, 48% of Indian children are malnourished and hence stunted. Many studies have indicated that the lack of sanitation is the cause of malnutrition and stunted growth in India. Shouldn’t the policy discourse then shift from hunger to malnutrition and sanitaion? Providing subsidized grains will not help in tackling the problem of malnutrition. In fact, the huge procurement targets may end up forcing farmers to grow grains instead of vegetables, making these nourishment foods further out of the reach of the needy. If the government commits a spending which ranges anywhere from 1,25,00 crore (1.2% of GDP) to 3,14,000 (3% of GDP) crore annually, isn’t it losing out on the opportunity of utilizing these funds for the better and more relevant issues of malnutrition and sanitation. Moreover, as we have come to learn, entitlements in India have no expiry date. So the wrong policies of the day will continue to haunt the nation for a long time in future as well.

These are some of the questions that the policy makers need to explain to the citizens. Political parties in a democracy can afford to be swayed by populist schemes, but policy makers need to make mature arguments supporting their proposals.

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