Food security bill in India continues to provoke discussion

India’s National Food Security Bill (NFSB), an initiative for ensuring food and nutritional security to the population, is up for discussion in the lower house of the Indian Parliament on 19 August. The Bill aims to provide a majority of the nation’s population with the right to 5kg of foodgrain every month, at highly subsidised rates of Rs 1-3 per kilogram.

In July 2013, the NFSB was signed into ordinance, but critics have argued that the cost of the Bill is excessive.

OPHI Director Sabina Alkire described that charge as ‘exceedingly strange’ in an opinion piece published by The Hindu a week before the bill was introduced in the lower house in India on 7 August. An uproar over the Bill led to proceedings being adjourned until 19 August.

In The Hindu, Alkire argues that expenditure on providing food security will add minimally to public spending, and compares India’s fiscal priorities with those of other countries in Asia, where, she says, governments across the political spectrum invest more in social protection.

She concludes: ‘India has a higher proportion of stunted children than nearly any other country on earth, yet spends half the proportion of GDP that lower middle income Asian countries spend on social protection and less than one-fifth of what high income countries in Asia spend.’ You can read Alkire’s article, titled ‘This bill won’t eat your money’, in full here.

Alkire’s views are echoed by Jean Drèze, Visiting Professor at the Department of Economics, University of Allahabad, in a recent op-ed article in The Hindu in which he notes that ‘Statistical hocus-pocus has been deployed with abandon to produce wildly exaggerated “estimates” of the financial costs of the bill.’ He goes on to outline the main impacts the Bill’s provisions would have on the Public Distribution System in India and cautions against fast-tracking the Bill.

Drèze has long been a discussant on the food security debate in India. Two years ago, he commented in an op-ed article in The Hindu on India’s draft National Food Security Act. In the article he drew on interesting findings from contemporary Below the Poverty Line identification studies by Reetika Khera, Sabina Alkire, and Himanshu, among others.

The findings suggested that about 25 to 30 per cent of households in rural India met simple, transparent and verifiable “exclusion criteria,” such as having a government job, owning a motorised vehicle, or living in a multi-storied house. Professor Drèze went on to suggest modifications to the proposed framework in response. Read the article in full.