"Food security and panchayati raj", 'The Hindu', July 12, 1999

There appears to be a slight danger of panchayati raj being turned into a shibboleth entering into every discourse on policy rather like planning has been used for over four decades. I refer to the guidelines issued to the state governments by the Food Ministry in making the public distribution system (PDS) open to social audit by panchayats. This has received wide attention, including in a leader in The Hindu on July 7. While social audit of public activity is to be welcomed as a recurring practice and while the panchayat might well be able to monitor some aspects of the actual amounts distributed, I can think of at least two counts on which we may be advised to temper our expectation of what can be achieved with respect to poverty. First, the past record with respect to coverage of the PDS is an indication of how the panchayats actually fit into the system. Secondly, it needs be recognised that in any case an optional rationing scheme is only a part of what can contribute to individual food security. And finally, the PDS is only part of the food complex of the economy with the government intervening in other ways too, often with unintended negative consequences for some.

            On the question of the coverage of the PDS it is of paramount interest how well the poor are covered. Surveys provide one approach to this question. Some exist, and in the context what they suggest is not particularly favourable to the present arrangements. I here present a slightly different type of data which reveals that there may be a sort of geo-politics to the PDS. I use `geopolitics’ in a deliberate sort of way here to imply that the political culture of the various regions explains the distribution of the PDS across the country. It also serves my contingent purpose of querying the potential role of panchayats in rectifying some of the unevenness that we see.

Table: A statewise ranking

 

PDS

Poverty

Andhra Pradesh

5

12

Bihar

11

2

Gujarat

4

10

Haryana

12

13

Karnataka

7

8

Kerala

1

11

Madhya Pradesh

9

5

Maharashtra

6

7

Orissa

10

1

Punjab

13

14

Rajasthan

8

9

Tamilnadu

3

3

Uttar Pradesh

14

6

West Bengal

2

4

 

In the Table are presented rankings of some Indian states with respect to two variables of interest, the per capita distribution of foodgrains through the PDS and the proportion of the population below the poverty line. While these cover the majority of states, the north-east remains unrepresented for want of comparable data. The estimates, pertaining to the years 1986-87 and 1987-88, have been published by the independent researcher Shikha Jha and the Planning Commission, respectively. The ranking is based on this. It is sufficient to eyeball this data to grasp that there is little correlation between the amount of grain distributed per capita and the need for it premised on the corresponding distribution of poverty across the states. Actually, the poorest states appear to be the least well served by the PDS. It is of interest to determine the degree of association between the rankings. When the Spearman rank correlation coefficient was computed for this sample of states it was found to be a mere +.04. To correct for the `bias’ that may be being introduced due to the near perfect positive rank correlation in the cases of Punjab and Haryana – these low poverty states, naturally, record low distribution figures – the correlation coefficient was re-computed after having excluded these from the sample. The rank correlation coefficient now turns out to be -.52. An interpretation is that the public distribution system is more than halfway towards being way from where it is most needed. While the data is for the eighties, it is difficult to imagine that the situation has altered substantially since. Also coverage is here taken to be sufficiently well captured by the average quantity distributed. Nevertheless, the picture is striking in that while we may well have a expected shortfall of distribution in relation to need this actually points to a geographical mismatch in coverage.

If we are correctly interpreting the data presented here as signalling poor coverage it needs to be asked what role the panchayats can have in rectifying this. The answer, it appears , is "not much". Ultimately, the extent of grain supplied to the states from the central pool is related to the demands made by the respective state governments. Thus the very low level of distribution in U.P. one of the poorest Indian states, might reflect at least partly the relatively low priority that is given to individual food security in the political discourse there. It is not entirely clear that this would be very different under panchayati raj if we are still stuck in the mould of party politics albeit at a lower rung. There is some reason to believe that the extent, not to mention other aspects of implementation, of the PDS in a State is related to the prevalent political culture. Political culture does not of course refer to ideology. Note that for three southern states and West Bengal the ranking in terms of the PDS is higher than that in terms of poverty and for Tamilnadu these are identical . While there may be some convergence of the ideological predilections of the major parties of Kerala and West Bengal the same cannot be said of the ideologies of the successive governments in the four southern states. For historical reasons the political culture of states gets formed at levels a little higher than that of panchayats. Thus the move towards social audit by the latter cannot a degree of with confidence be expected to alter the current scenario whereby some states are better served than others. Finally, while still on the question of spread and coverage, it seems entirely unlikely that we shall get to a stage when the central civil supplies ministry will start dealing with panchayats directly for it is strictly infeasible given the transactions costs involved. This is likely to leave the levers of distribution more or less firmly in the hands of the civil supplies authority of the respective State Governments.

It is odd to find a championing of the PDS beyond a point as a major factor in ensuring individual food security. It must be seen for what it is, at best a supply side arrangement providing, for those with access, at a fixed price quantities upto a maximum. While in the short run, so long as stocks last, it can prevent the failure of exchange entitlements – as visualised by Sen – that might arise from price increases, it is not an instrument that can raise consumption levels of those currently with access to it. This can only be achieved through a rise in incomes, for which task a rationing system is not equipped. Thus an evaluation of the PDS in relation to the overall requirement for food security would reveal that its role is quite limited constitutionally even, quite independently of coverage. Even a widespread coverage of the PDS cannot take away from the fact that the prevention of inflation is ultimately a second-best policy. From the point of view of individual food security, the first best one raises incomes. Taking into account the set of state interventions constituting food policy, it is not clear that the PDS is even a safety net. How can it be if it is supplied through a procurement policy which is based on raising offer prices to the surplus farmers?

The failure of India’s food policy is that it has not been able to hold down the real price of grain. Within the context of near universal private enterprise in agriculture, this could have been feasible only with a continuous increase in yields. Historically, this has been happening elsewhere. For instance, over the four decades starting 1950 the real price of wheat in the international market has displayed a secular decline. In the developed economies, there has been what has been referred to as the `third agricultural revolution’ since 1950 when wheat yields have grown much faster than in the four decades preceding that date. Europe, the `old’ world if you please, now boasts the highest wheat yields in the world. It is easy to forget that this region had been reduced to a virtual wasteland after the Second World War. In comparative perspective, in India we have not planned for prosperity. Instead we have taken refuge in a sort of rationing scheme originally devised by the colonial administration to ensure that the war effort was kept supplied in the early forties. In the evaluation of India’s food policy the question to ask is not what the price would be in the absence of the PDS other things being the same but what the price would be in the case of an alternative food policy that can actually lower the price of food. This is the relevant counterfactual with or without panchayati raj.