RtF Series: Can India’s Food Security Act Withstand Corporate Pressures?

Author: Reetika Khera, Associate Professor in Economics at the Indian Institute of Technology Delhi.

Editor’s note: this is the fifth of a series of blogs entries on the right to food that we are glad to host on our webpage. Tomaso Ferrando (scientific coordinator of the FLF master) and Jose Luis Vivero Pol (faculty member) have been gathering the contributions and we all look forward to receiving more in the future.

In December 2014, during field work in Mayurbhanj District in the eastern state of Odisha, a special treat awaited me. At the Tasarda village “anganwadi” (government-run childcare centres), when the auxiliary nurse and midwife pulled out her blood pressure (BP) instrument for an ante-natal checkup (ANC), the children at the anganwadi began playing “nurse”: with their little fists, they pumped an imaginary BP instrument and, a short while later, squealed with laughter as they let off the (imaginary) pressure with a “pphssss” sound.

This endearing moment of a survey of the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) scheme was also significant. The ICDS is one of the main government programmes in India for children under six years, and anganwadis are the delivery point for six essential services (supplementary nutrition, immunization, pre-school education, etc). In many states, the ICDS was virtually defunct until about a decade ago. Children playing nurse at anganwadis establishes that ANC activities, such as checking blood pressure, were regular enough to have become part of children’s games. The coming of life of several social policy initiatives has been an important achievement of the past decade or so.

In 2013, several of the government’s food-related schemes were enshrined as law by the National Food Security Act (NFSA). Though the law is inadequate in many ways, it marks an important breakthrough. Two-thirds of the population is entitled to a monthly 5kg per capita of heavily subsidized foodgrain through the Public Distribution System (PDS). School-going children aged 6-14 years are entitled to school meals and children under the age of six years enrolled at anganwadis get supplementary nutrition. Most importantly, recognizing the principle of universal maternity entitlements, the Act makes a provision of Rs. 6000 (roughly USD 100) per child.

Among the main challenges is that corporate interests are eyeing government social spending. These interests manifest themselves in several ways.

First, there is an urgent need to improve the quality of food in supplementary feeding programmes. For instance, only about half of all Indian states include eggs (very nutritious but rarely available to such children). Yet, proposals to introduce eggs are repeatedly shot down in some states, either due to fiscal constraints or resistance from various (religious and other) lobbies.

In 2008, for instance, a ‘biscuit manufacturer’s association’, sent letters to elected representatives forcefully advocating the use of fortified biscuits in lieu of cooked meals. Such lobbies, with clear conflict of interest, continue to be active and may even have gathered strength in recent years. A proposal to introduce pre-cooked food for children under three years in lieu of cooked meals keeps cropping up in policy circles.

Second, the lobbies sometimes masquerade as ‘anti-corruption’ voices. Corruption has been a long standing issue, though there has been some progress. For instance, as a result of the decline in corruption, implicit transfers from the PDS in 2009-10 contributed to a reduction of one-fifth of the poverty gap.

Technocrats have gained power within government, a sort of ‘techno-mania’, a blind faith in technology, has taken over. Aadhaar, a biometric ID number, is the prime example of this. It is impractical, inappropriate and untested (e.g., internet-dependent biometric authentication for purchase of grain). Yet it is being forced – possibly through backdoor lobbies – on these programmes, often disrupting the steady improvement witnessed earlier.

Finally, political support for social policy is fragile at the best of times. There is constant pressure for budgetary cuts, even though India is known to be among the ‘world champions of social underspending’. Propagandist writing dominates, using labels such as ‘doles’, ‘freebies’, ‘handouts’, instead of viewing them as social rights. There is a real danger that the current government will move from ‘in-kind’ transfers (e.g., school meals) to cash transfers. If the objectives of these programmes are to be fulfilled these spheres should be protected from the ‘commodification’ that cash transfers will likely bring.

 

Reetika Khera

Ph.D. (Economics), Delhi School of Economics, University of Delhi,
MPhil (Development Studies), Institute of Development Studies, University of Sussex,
MA (Economics), Delhi School of Economics, University of Delhi,
BA (Economics), Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda.

hss.iitd.ac.in/faculty/reetika-khera

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