Food Security Program – Boon or Curse in West Bengal?

Frank Yiannas , the author of Food Safety Culture, said in this book that “the goal of the food safety professional should be to create a food safety culture , not a food safety program.

Under the National Food Security Act (NFASA), central government has been supplying rice at Rs 3 per Kg and wheat at Rs 2 per Kg to each beneficiary every month. Government of India bears a subsidy of Rs 17 per Kg for Wheat and Rs.23-24 per Kg on Rice.

The state where this program has mattered the most is West Bengal. This article has focused on a particular left wing extremist affected district where the author spent more than 6 years and where this program has decided the fate of candidates who stood in recently concluded Assembly election.

Average forest coverage of the Jungle Mahal region of West Bengal is around 26% (approx).  Scheduled Casts, Scheduled tribes,  and Other Backward Class (OBCs) reside in these pockets. They are mostly dependents on fuel wood collection and seasonal cultivation in Kharif. Rain fade agriculture is the one that is in practice in these parts.

Various studies from leading organisations such as PRADAN and NABARD demonstrated that in this geographic area most of the forest dweller’s agricultural productivity is insufficient to provide them food throughout the year. They go for fuel wood collection, selling and at times migrate to other parts of the country to earn their livelihood. At this juncture the then new government of West Bengal in 2011 under the leadership of Mamata Banerjee introduced Rs.2 per Kg rice program, like the one done in Jharkand and even in Chattisgarh. Government of West Bengal merged the scheme of Centre and along with their own framed Khadya Sathi Scheme in order to bring in more family under food security program. In the process, GoWB raised the ceiling of income. A family earning less than Rs42, 000 in a year is eligible for Rs.2 per Kg rice. At this point of time out of 9 Cr. people in the state, 7.5 Cr. people get this benefit after re-revised guidelines was passed for this program.

Initially, in West Bengal, this program was launched for only a particular category of people i.e. Below Poverty Line. It was later opened for every inhabitants of Jungle Mahal with ration card. This is one of the highest expenditure incurring scheme for the state government. Through this program the present government tried to secure food for every family. The government also ensured that they reach every family of Jungle Mahal where there were sociopolitical turmoil since 2008. In one way through this food security program the ruling party tried to secure the 2016 ballot box too.

In one way this has been a boon to a section of population and has been a curse to overall state’s population. This is because a huge cost which is getting diverted for food security for both APL and BPL was never the need of the hour. This step has put the state into a huge loss where a section of people are not getting themselves in a position to fetch their food and other necessary items through their work. They have become solely dependent on the government.

Government of India introduced NFSA program to provide subsidised food grains to the BPLs and Antodya. This scheme has been used by the state government to gain confidence in the Jungle Mahal area in one hand at the same time the same scheme could have crippled a large number of work forces that government has probably not realised.

During other FGDs with villagers from Joypur block of Purulia , couple of people who were working in a government departments as DRW and Group D respectively, shared that their families are having sufficient food grains that is required for a family can survive for one and half year without growing grain. At the same time he also claimed that since the beginning of Rs2 per kg food grain supply they have never purchased food grains from market. He also said that there are even families who procure the food grain available for their family and sell it in open market at higher rate. The worst part of this discussion is the fact that this is causing havoc on agriculture and agricultural practices especially on paddy cultivation.

Few villagers from Golamara Gram Panchayt of Jhalda II Block of Purulia even said that since last 2-3 years there has been a reduction in production of staple crops like rice and wheat by 15% to 20%. They are right now focusing on seasonal cash crops to a large extent; they are looking for less work and maximum payment. Though risk is far more than in that of paddy cultivation but still many of them are going for it because of earning cash in quick span. Purulia being a mono-cropping zone due to lack of sufficient water suits rain fed crops only. But the present trend of vegetable cultivation is actually creating pressure on existing water table too. The statistics says that timely effective rain fall has decreased since 2010 and vegetable is being grown on upland and medium upland area compared to paddy fields which are mostly low land or medium low land, generally medium upland and upland does not get sufficient water from natural water sources like ponds or streams. Therefore, vegetable cultivators are solely dependent on pump or deep wells or dug wells.

Vegetable cultivation has become an attraction since they have quick return and less effort compared to Paddy. A report from Food Department says that less production of food grains in Purulia, forcing Purulia administration to procure food grains from nearby districts. This article flags few questions on the growth and development model of West Bengal which moves surrounding Sustainable Development Goals.

The district is really in a huge crisis in terms of skilled Human Resource and in terms of paddy cultivation is concerned. Overall fund flow has increased in the district too.

In this situation Government of West Bengal can launch programs such as giving up of Liquefied Petroleum Gas (LPG) where enable families may come up and would surrender their subsidies at the cost of those who are in actual need.

References:

  1. National food Security Act, 2013
  2. Khadya Sathi Scheme of Government of West Bengal (Ref. wbpds.gov.in)
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Animesh Ghosh is a Consultant with UNICEF and a former Prime Minister’s Rural Development Fellow.