February 08, 2015

The Criminal Approach of the Shanta Kumar Committee Report

Brinda Karat

ON January 1, 2015 there were 3.68 crore tonnes of foodgrains in India's godowns. This is around one third more than the January buffer stock norm. Buffer stocks are decided for four different quarters of the year. Recently the Cabinet Committee on Economic Affairs reduced the norms for the buffer stock for two quarters. It was brought down for the January to April quarter from a norm of 25 million tonnes to 21.4 million tonnes, the norm for the quarter starting April has been reduced from 21.20 million tonnes to 21.04 million tonnes. The reduction of the norm has policy implications. For the last several years, the government at the centre has seen these stocks over the required buffer stock norms as a problem instead of as an opportunity to address the continuing scourge of hunger among India's poor. In 2010, in response to a public interest litigation filed by the PUCL, the Supreme Court had issued orders to the then UPA government that the surplus stocks in godowns should be " distributed free to the poor" instead of rotting in the godowns. The UPA government had refused to accept the court order but under its pressure it increased its allocations of foodgrains to enable the state governments to expand their BPL lists. The BJP president of the time, Nitin Gadkari had demanded the government should follow the SC order stating "allowing India's foodgrains to rot in godowns when several lakhs of people are reeling in hunger is criminal." Today the Modi government has gone one step further than the UPA as far as criminality in depriving the poor of their right to food is concerned. It has decided to “solve" the problem by virtually eliminating the PDS all together. This criminal approach is reflected in the recently released report of the high level committee set up under the former union minister for food and civil supplies, Shanta Kumar. DEEPLY FLAWED The Shanta Kumar Committee report on a range of issues connected with the procurement, storage and distribution of foodgrains which was prepared under the guidance of the PMO, is not only deeply flawed in its reading of the situation on food security but is also short on facts. For example it asserts that only 6 per cent of all farmers have benefitted from MSP through sale of foodgrains to an official procurement agency quoting from an NSSO report (70th round). But analysts of the survey have found discrepancies between the survey's estimates of the foodgrains sold to official procurement agencies and the actual amount of foodgrains procured by official agencies for that year. For Kharif, the NSSO survey estimates 13 million tonnes were sold to a procurement agency while the actual procurement that year by government agencies was 34 million tonnes. For rabi the gap is even larger, 10 million tonnes estimated in the survey while the actual amount procured by an official agency was 38 million tonnes. Why did the Shanta Kumar Committee overlook these possible underestimates? Was it just to get the sensational figure of 6 per cent and then to argue that since only 6 per cent farmers get the benefit of MSP and procurement why have the FCI at all? But there is another way of looking at it. It is true that large numbers of farmers are deprived of the benefits of MSP. It is not because they do not want to sell to procurement agencies but because they do not have access to official procurement centres which are set up only in selective States and regions. The majority of farmers sell at distress prices which pushes them deeper into debt. For this large section of rural India, reforming the system would mean a substantial increase in the number of procurement centres and easier access, so as to enable them to benefit from MSP. As soon as the BJP assumed office, the first thing it did was to bring down the rate of increase of MSP to just about three per cent over the previous year, this when the prices of farm inputs have increased phenomenally. Some states under pressure of Kisan movements decided to give a bonus over and above the MSP to help farmers. The Modi government stepped in to "punish" such states. It decreed that it would not procure any food grains over and above the requirement for PDS from such states which gave the farmers a bonus. The Chhattisgarh government for example which had given such a bonus, confronted with the central government's policy issued a circular that it would procure only 10 quintals of paddy per acre from individual farmers. Andhra Pradesh has also limited its procurement. Thus open ended procurement which ensured India's food security as well as farmer security is now in the process of being whittled down while the rate of increase of MSP is delinked from the increases in cost of production and adequate profit margins. This is in contrast to the Swaminathan Commission recommendations for MSP to be calculated at cost of production plus 50 per cent profit, to keep agriculture viable. DISTRESS SALES The immediate impact in Chhattisgarh has been distress sales by farmers to private traders who can dictate prices, buoyed by the assurance from government that it would not procure more grains. The Shanta Kumar Committee report takes these dangerous steps further by advocating limited procurement as the officially declared policy. This is directly linked to its recommendation to scrap the existing Food Security Act. The Committee wants to reduce the coverage from 67 per cent to 40 per cent of the population. It also wants to double the prices that these foodgrains are to be sold under the present Act by linking the price to the MSP. This means resurrecting the fraudulent and discredited APL and BPL estimations and depriving equally poor people of subsidised grains. In fact, as the Left has consistently argued and fought for, it is only a universalised PDS which can meet the requirement to make India hunger free. The Shanta Kumar Committee wants to eliminate even the inadequate provisions under the existing FSA and to push the country back to the worst days of food insecurity. Ironically such a recommendation comes at a time when the UN agencies monitoring country wise performances towards meeting Millennium goals have praised India for its reduction of malnutrition giving credit for this to food security systems like the "ICDS as well as the public distribution system." In spite of the reduction which brings India from the "most alarming category" to the "seriously affected" category, India is still home to the largest malnourished population in the world, its rank in the Global Hunger Index at 55 out of 120 countries, is only slightly ahead of Pakistan and Bangladesh but worse than Sri Lanka and Nepal. Just as in the case of procurement, so in the case of the implementation of the FSA, the Modi government has already started to subvert the Act. The Food Security Act became law in September 2013. More than one year later, it is being implemented in only 11 states. The central government has excluded 25 states and union territories from the ambit of the Act. According to a release on November 28, 2014, these states "have not completed the preparatory measures required for the implementation of the Act.” It was further stated that “The central government extended the deadline for implementation of the Act by another six months, namely till April 2014.” The government of India has no right to make the implementation of the Act conditional to “preparedness” on the basis of parameters it has decided arbitrarily. There is no such legal provision in the Act. Nor is there any legal deadline. But the official release reflects clearly the hostility of the present government for taking any responsibility for food security. This is also reflected in the allocations of foodgrains. If the FSA is to be implemented then according to the calculations of the food ministry, the allocations will go up to 550 lakh tonnes of food grains compared to the pre FSA allocations in 2012-2013 of 504 lakh tonnes. According to the ministry's Foodgrains bulletin till December 2014 the allocations to the states was just 388 lakh tonnes of foodgrains. This is roughly the same as it was the previous year before the Act was passed. In other words, the Modi government has already stayed the implementation of the Food Security Act. It is making preparations to shift to direct cash transfers for a much restricted number of families. The Shanta Kumar Committee recommendations of unbundling the FCI, allowing the free play of market forces in procurement and storage, and restricting the FSA, are in tune with the demands raised by the western world led by the US in the WTO against India’s systems of procurement, storage and distribution. The India -US agreement to end the stalemate in the WTO process is clearly premised on the changes being suggested by the Committee. The government can be expected to try and bulldoze the required amendments to the FSA through parliament using its majority. But undoubtedly it will face the resistance of the people.