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Tuesday, Jan 18, 2011
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It was bad enough that the National Advisory Council in its recommendation of October 2010 proposed a food security Bill that diluted the principle of a universal right to food. It is appalling now that the C. Rangarajan Committee seeks to truncate that proposal, and legally establish a narrowly targeted public distribution system on the grounds of feasibility. Their argument is a false argument for more reasons than one. First, as a matter of fact, current cereal production in India is enough to meet the needs of the entire population. It has been shown repeatedly, including in reports of the National Commission on Farmers, that there is tremendous potential for increases in production. It is a failure of our institutions and policy, be it in the field of agricultural extension or procurement and storage policy, that we have not ensured higher production and better distribution. So the second flaw in the argument is that it denies a right to food because of a failure of institutions, much like denying the right of every child to education on the grounds that there are not already enough school buildings. In a country that holds the world record for malnutrition — both in absolute terms and in terms of the proportion of malnourished persons — there can be few more pressing objectives than ensuring cheap and regular supply of basic foods to all households. As advocated earlier by this newspaper, a commitment to a universal public distribution system can be an effective means to end hunger and malnutrition.
The specific proposal of the Rangarajan Committee is to provide legal entitlements of 35 kg. of cereals (rice and wheat) to 46 per cent of the rural population and 28 per cent of the urban population, based on estimates of poverty by the Tendulkar Committee. The Committee also suggests linking prices of cereals to the rate of inflation, based on the Consumer Price Index for Agricultural Labourers. In a period of record inflation, instead of ensuring that real prices of basic staples remain low and stable, the Rangarajan Committee launches a further attack on food security by proposing to raise prices of cereals in the public distribution system in line with inflation. This will not only have a direct negative impact on the budget of households receiving PDS rations but also send the wrong signal to market prices. It is shocking that the Committee has further weakened proposals for ensuring food security for the mass of Indians at a time of spiralling food prices in India and the world. Public opinion and Parliament must see to it that a food security Bill mandating a universal public distribution system is enacted without further delay.
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