Friday, October 19, 2012

Expanding the leaky public distribution system wont deliver food security 
(by Arvind Panagariya )

Perhaps the most powerful argument used by the proponents of the so-called Food Security Bill to further expand the highly inefficient,corrupt and leaky public distribution system (PDS) is adult hunger and malnutrition.Serious flaws exist,however,in both the diagnosis and prescription the proponents offer.

Civil society groups and international organisations such as the World Health Organisation,Food and Agricultural Organisation and World Bank contend that one-fifth or more Indians suffer from hunger and many more from malnutrition.But this contention is principally based on the steadily declining trend in calorie consumption in India during the last two decades.The trend has been observed among all classes of consumers whether rich or poor,rural or urban.

But when asked in the nationwide expenditure surveys whether they have had enough to eat throughout the year,the responses of Indians have shown exactly the opposite trend.Those replying in the negative to the question were 17.3% in 1983 but fell to 5.2% in 1993-94,3.6% in 1999-2000 and just 2.5% in 2004-05.

Some,who reject these numbers as implausible,argue that the household heads answering the question in the survey are too proud to admit hunger in their families.Quite apart from the fact that the same household heads have rarely let their pride come in the way when applying for belowpoverty-line or BPL cards and associated benefits,this argument cannot explain the declining proportion of households reporting hunger.Surely,households in the 1980s could not have been any less proud than those in the 2000s! 

Several factors have been at work to reduce the need for calorie consumption and hence decline in it among all income classes.In the rural areas,farming has been getting progressively mechanised.Fewer and fewer people rely on long walks or bicycles and more and more on motorbikes and buses to get from one point to another.The proportion of population engaged in farming has been declining as well.With more and more children in school,midday meals are providing calories that do not get counted in the household expenditure data from which the above-mentioned calorie consumption trend is derived.

Similar factors have been at work in urban areas.Improved means of transportation,both private and public,have reduced the need for more physically challenging modes of transportation.Heavy machinery has reduced the need for physical labour in activities such as construction.Workers have increasingly shifted to desk jobs.

Finally,better absorption of calories due to improved epidemiological environment and access to healthcare has reduced the need for actual calorie consumption.Increased access to piped water combined with water purification systems in urban households and proliferation of handpumps and tube wells in the rural areas have greatly improved the access to safe drinking water.In turn,this has helped reduce the incidence of diarrhoea,a common cause of poor absorption of food.Greater availability of medicines has further helped calorie absorption.

The height and weight trends and improvements in vital statistics further contradict the inference that the decline in calorie consumption represents increased malnourishment.The National Nutrition Monitoring Bureau surveys reveal that the proportion of those having below normal Body Mass Index fell from 56 to 33% for men and from 52 to 36% for women between 1975-79 and 2004-05.Data also show both men and women steadily gaining in height.Vital statistics such as life expectancy,death rates,infant,child and maternal mortality rates have steadily improved.

For these reasons,the focus on the decline in calorie consumption when the real problem may be a lack of balanced diet that goes well beyond cereal consumption is misguided.But even accepting increased calorie consumption as the goal,an expanded PDS is not the answer.If individuals are choosing to consume less foodgrains despite rising incomes,making foodgrain available in larger quantity at lower prices will not change the outcome.Households will pick their share of subsidised grain and simply sell the portion not consumed for a higher price on the market.

Recent work by economist Nisha Malhotra on child malnutrition in India shows that informing mothers on proper feeding practices rather than just access to food is what helps improve child nutrition.The same prescription is bound to apply to adult nutrition that requires a balanced diet.
This evidence and analysis notwithstanding,the proponents of the Food Security Bill insist that universalising the PDS will ensure that the poor receive more foodgrain,consume it and become better nourished.
While i have already questioned the second and third links in the argument,the available evidence brings into question even the first link.In a recent article,economist Peter Svedberg makes the point thus: The evidence in support of universality as an efficient method for eliminating,or even notably reducing,exclusion errors is not altogether convincing.Before 1997,the PDS was in principle universal,but large proportions of poor households were either effectively excluded,or purchased very small amounts of subsidised grains. 

It is disappointing that having decided to move to cash transfers while also facing severe pressure to cut fiscal deficit,the cabinet has cleared an entirely flawed Bill in the name of food security.Genuine reform requires a shift to cash transfers,public-information campaigns on balanced diet and reforms in agriculture and food safety and health instead.Massive food distribution is neither the comparative advantage of the government nor promises to raise calorie consumption,let alone promote a balanced diet.

Source: The Times of India


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