‘When big fish get tax benefits, no one protests’

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NAC member NC Saxena tells Bijay Kumar Singh the Centre is responsible for the woes of the food distribution system

The Prime Minister has said the Supreme Court should not get into the realm of policy formulation. Do you agree?
I disagree. Policy formulation is the Parliament’s job. But when the government does not follow its policies, the court has to intervene. There are six lakh schools and 10 lakh anganwadi centres that distribute cooked food. They can be used to distribute foodgrain as well.

But the Prime Minister has pointed to the enormity of the job of distributing free food. How will we tackle the problem?
There are various channels of distribution. The government should try to improve offloading, and improve the quota for BPL (below poverty line) families based on the 2002 Census. We must reduce the stock. The government must strengthen its own projects such as the Integrated Child Development Services and the midday meal scheme. We should follow the Tendulkar Committee formula to determine the number of poor in the country. In 2001, when the government had 64 million tonnes of foodgrain in godowns, 28 million had to be exported to feed the cattle of the rich. Do we want to repeat the mistakes committed in 2001 and 2004?

Is the rotting foodgrain a crisis of production or of storage?
India has enough storage facility, but the government is not able to distribute. Even as the per capita production is falling, we have not tackled the distribution problem.

The Food Security Bill is proposed to be renamed Food and Nutrition Security Bill. What will that change?
Food is an input for better nutrition. India’s excellent growth has had little impact on food security and nutrition levels of its population. Per capita availability and consumption of foodgrain has declined. The percentage of underweight children has remained stagnant between 1998 and 2006. More than half of India’s women and three-quarters of children are anaemic. These are appalling figures, which place India among the world’s most undernourished countries.

Will the Unique Identity (UID) project plug the loopholes in the public distribution system (PDS)?
Our PDS suffers from severe systemic flaws. The 2004 Planning Commission Survey says that 58 percent of subsidised foodgrain do not reach the BPL families, with 36 percent sold in the black market. Diversion is a big problem due to the lack of transparency, low accountability and poor monitoring. The UID project cannot plug the hole entirely. The food ministry should “own” the PDS. The Centre cannot close its eyes to large-scale fraud in PDS by taking a narrow constitutional position that implementation is the state’s responsibility.

Do agricultural subsidies distort the cropping pattern and lead to regional disparity in development?
One must distinguish between merit and non-merit subsidy. Today, rich industrialists are being subsidised in the name of providing stimulus to industry. When big corporate houses get tax benefits and subsidies, nobody protests, but when the poor get subsidy, the so-called neo-liberal economists raise a hue and cry.

Has food security become an outdated concept?
Using that logic, even government is an outdated concept. Then should the country be ruled by the mafia? We all know that India is home to the largest number of malnourished people in the world. Therefore, providing food security to every citizen should be the fundamental responsibility of the government.

Photo: Vijay Pandey

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