Development, Law, Food & water | South Asia

19 March 2015

India produces more grain than it needs, but is home to one quarter of the world’s hungry. What’s going wrong?

It is difficult not to be cynical about the passage of the National Food Security (NFS) Act 2013 through the Indian parliament. Instead of being voted upon, it was promulgated unilaterally as ordinance, noticeably, right at the moment when the Gandhi family- dominated Indian National Congress recognised the extent of its electoral slide.

As an exercise in populism, it failed – Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won an outright majority in the 2014 elections. Nonetheless, the legislation remains in force, guaranteeing 70 per cent of the population access to subsidised food-grains, including 50 per cent of the urban population. However questionable the motive behind its introduction, there can be few questions about its intended benefits for India’s poor, who comprise almost one quarter of the world’s hungry.

Indians ought not to be afflicted with food insecurity. The country’s rapidly accumulating wealth aside, it still produces more food-grain than it requires to feed its people. The primary problem is distribution: antiquated networks and infrastructure mean huge amounts of food are wasted or rot before they even get to market.

Distribution is further debilitated by the states’ own laws and regulations. Restrictions still exist to prevent the movement of food-grains between districts and states, so local gluts and shortages cannot be attenuated. As the Wall Street Journal pointed out, many states mandate that farmers sell their produce to government ‘committees’ – these then license agents, much like a cartel. Ration cards are not portable, so urban migrants cannot access their ration because their cards are only valid in the village they left.

This situation reflects the institutional dysfunction that affects the whole country, however, it has specific implications for the achievement of policy enacted through the NFS Act. The movement of subsidised food-grain occurs through the Public Distribution Systems (PDS), which the states operate, and which are replete with corruption, leakage, theft and waste. Thus, while the NFS Act is federal law, the Indian Government is relying upon the states to implement it. And by increasing the role of the PDS in public nutrition but abrogating responsibility for improving how each state operates its system, the federal government is failing its citizens by perpetuating regional inequalities. The PDS in Tamil Nadu or Himuchal Pradesh, for instance, include pulses and edible oils and are comparatively well-run, while a large proportion of food-grain destined for those with ration cards in Uttar Pradesh is sold on the black market.

Such entanglement of powers is common in federations, and it is not just India where this has caused problems. In its Franklin River decision to protect World Heritage-listed wilderness in Tasmania from being submerged for hydroelectricity, the Australian High Court ruled that the states were also bound by international agreements entered into by the federal government. The impasse between the US Government and those states that legalised marijuana ended with the government capitulating that it would not use federal laws to prevent the owners of marijuana stores from opening bank accounts for previously cash-only enterprises – one instance of a Western government raising taxes on small business.

The difference is that Australia and the US have sufficiently capable institutional structures to allow for such cooperation and enforcement. India’s governance, however, is officious and inflexible, and the powerful rich that control the states have little reason to ‘activate their networks’ to bypass institutions on behalf of the impoverished – until the poor organise and pose a political threat, the wealthy have no skin in the game. In the case of the NFS Act, there is simply too much interference at the intersections between all levels of government for the legal obligation of subsidised food to be delivered effectively to the hungry.

It would be easy to be cynical and suggest that the NFS Act was promulgated precisely because the government at the time believed that it would reap the rewards of a policy the states would have to implement. Instead, let the assumption be that the ordinance was a genuine attempt to correct the trenchant failure of the Indian Government to feed its own people. In which case, the BJP’s electoral dominance may remove some of the usual inter-party squabbles that cripple policy implementation across district and state borders.

Early evidence of implementation efforts is not encouraging, however – the government has extended the NFS rollout deadline (again) for the majority of states due to institutional shortcomings, primarily the digitisation of records, thus further entrenching the divide between those states and the few which have implemented the Act. Moreover, institutionalised corruption ensures that politicians and functionaries at all levels operate on a spectrum that – even for those who favour party loyalty and professional conduct – makes their involvement merely lucrative, but can easily become a cripplingly disruptive force. This problem is one that only a government with greater political will than any in democratic India’s history will be able to overcome.

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