Wednesday, July 17, 2013


During the last 4 years citizens in India were being led on a diet of promises most of them remaining on paper with very little impact on their day to day lives. One of the most hotly debated policies of the present government is the recently promulgated ordinance under its food security proposal to make available rice and wheat to more than two thirds of the population at Rs 1-2 per kg. Whether all the beneficiaries scheduled to be covered under the scheme really deserve this dole out is some thing the planners of this gross misuse of public funds did not bother to think! While poorest of the poor must be provided social support through such poverty alleviation programs why even well to do citizens who can afford to buy foods at the market price are being included as beneficiaries is beyond comprehension! Of course this is a controversial issue with no consensus among the experts. But common sense tells that public funds must be carefully deployed for maximum impact and in a country like India subsidies must be provided only to those below poverty line. One of the major flaws of the rice-wheat scheme is the government assumption that quantity is more important than quality when it comes to providing food security to its citizens. This distorted assumption is brought out recently by some experts who feel that the scheme needs a revisit in the light of latest statistics regarding the change in food consumption habits of the population. Here is a take on this vexatious issue.

"Even as the government is gearing up to bring in the cereal-centric National Food Security Bill (NFSB), Indian households are fast changing their consumption preferences from cereals to higher value food items. The share of monthly expenditure on cereals by families in total consumption spending has fallen drastically, prompting economists to suggest food security should have a larger basket than just cereals and should be reviewed periodically. Rural households spent 12 per cent of their total consumption outlay on food in 2011-12 against 18 per cent in 2004-05, while the share fell to 7.3 per cent from 10.1 per cent in urban parts over the period. The expenditure on pulses as a percentage share in total expenditure has remained constant in both urban and rural areas at 3.1 per cent and 2.1 per cent, respectively. Talking of milk products, it has risen to 9.1 per cent in 2011-12 from 8.5 per cent in 2004-05 in rural areas and has remained more or less the same in urban centres where it has declined marginally by 0.1 percentage points to 7.8 per cent in 2011-12. When it comes to egg, fish and meat, the percentage share has increased in both rural and urban sectors. In the rural population, it rose to 3.6 per cent in 2011-12 from 3.3 per cent in 2004-05 and in urban, the share grew marginally to 2.8 per cent from 2.7 per cent in the same period. While most economists said this is a sign of prosperity in the economy, some of them maintained that this could come as a blow to the highly-debated NFSB. "Complexion of system is changing. There is a gradual change towards higher value agriculture food items. We must recognise that and our food policy should be in tune with this emerging demand pattern,"  Ashok Gulati, chairman of the Commission for Agricultural Costs and Prices (CACP) told Business Standard".

It is a paradox that calorie rich foods are becoming cheaper day by day while protective foods like fruits, vegetables, pulses, oil seeds, milk, egg, fish and meat are tending to be dearer! Even if government makes available cereals like rice and wheat at low cost, where will the poor go to get the much needed protective foods like milk and pulses, prices of which are in the stratosphere with government not able to do any thing about it?. What will be the consequences of such a policy of supplying the cereals only at controlled prices? Will this nation become a place for people with stunted growth ravaged by diseases caused by essential nutrients deficiency? Of course government's thinking that it has primary responsibility to prevent starvation deaths through such basic food supply schemes has some validity and employment generating opportunities through schemes like MGNREGA are there to empower the people to earn the needed money for spending on quality improvement of life. Unfortunately people fed on such doles became more and more dependent on the government with very little initiative for developing self sufficiency!  


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