Economy Feb 16, 2013
Amartya Sen is, arguably, India's best known social thinker. Ever since he got his Nobel, he has become a kind of poster-boy for Left and mildly-Left politicians and activists in this country.
But this does not mean everything he says is God's wisdom. Yesterday, Sen was in Delhi talking about the Food Security Bill - an idea he has talked about enthusiastically in the past too. This time, too, he did not fail his audience.
He surely spoke for all Indians when he said attacking malnutrition among children is critical not only for social justice, but also in order to generate long-term growth. The link between the capabilities of the population and growth is undeniable.
He also decried the pursuit of growth for growth's sake, pointing out that high rates would not be sustainable with "one-third illiteracy, one-half without toilets, one-third with no electricity, 40 percent of children being undernourished," reports The Indian Express.
He could also have added that high rates are not possible without law and order too, but he didn't say it. Freebies for the social sector have to follow law and order.
For emphasis, Sen also slammed our obsession with achieving China-like growth: "The idea of recommending China's growth rate without the foggiest idea of what China does, is not a good idea." The point that India is not China is well taken.
But, in many ways, Sen's regular embrace of food security falls into the same trap - of blindly calling for a universal food security system without understanding the real dynamics of change in India, where different states have different needs and capabilities.
Does Amartya Sen have the "foggiest idea" about what's going on in terms of development in Indian states before recommending a one-size-fits-all Food Security legislation?
According to the Nobel laureate, universal coverage is good when it comes to basic public services and social facilities since it makes them the right of every citizen, eliminates corruption, and ensures the support of powerful and influential people.
The arguments are flawed, for several reasons.
Take universal coverage. Are the food security problems of Odisha the same as those of Tamil Nadu? Not quite, and the Tamil Nadu Chief Minister has sought changes in the bill or even exclusion from it. The Economic Times reports that while Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, which have a higher proportion of the poor, want the coverage ratios increased, Tamil Nadu opposes the idea of restricting the coverage in areas already covered by the state. As for Chhattisgarh, it is implementing a much better version of food security in the state.
The point is simple: universal coverage should not mean the whole of India. It should mean universal to the area in which food security needs are paramount.
In fact, the prime focus of food security should be ground-up not top-down. Areas facing similar problems of poverty and malnutrition should be given different treatment from those that do not. Also, the focus of the scheme should move away from just rice and wheat to cereals and food items relevant to the region in which food security is implemented. A combo of food delivered in kind and cash transfers may work better in some regions.
In short, the food security scheme should be de-universalised at the national level, and universalised at the district or regional levels.
If Amartya Sen wants to back the food security scheme, he should be talking about these nuances, not giving it blanket encouragement on the basis of vague generalisations.
Sen's other argument, that it will bring down corruption, is also debatable. Currently, the public distribution system is practically universal - but is the most ridden with corruption, with probably close to 40 percent leakages. The Mahatma Gandhi Rural Employment Guarantee Act is universal, but its efficacy is falling, coverage is coming down, and corruption is as endemic as in any other scheme. (Read what the Comptroller and Auditor General has to say on it here). The unintended consequences of NREGA have also to be taken into account.
The point is simple: without building the necessary capacity of the state to implement and execute big-money welfare schemes, all we will end up doing with universalisation is universalise corruption.
In fact, the UPA's big farm loan waivers and social sector overspends have brought us close to a fiscal collapse - thus jeopardising the very ability of the exchequer to bankroll pro-poor schemes.
Sen is right to say that universal schemes will get the support of the powerful - from Sonia Gandhi to Rahul Gandhi to all powerful politicians, everyone wants the food security bill for the wrong reasons: winning the next elections. Other powerful vested interests also want it, for without large spends how will they make money from corruption?
The moral is simple: food security will be the next big cash cow for the corrupt. (Read a critique about it here). It should be implemented only after pilots prove successful, and the flaws in more focused schemes - like the Integrated Child Development Scheme (ICDS), NREGA, and the Anganwadi Scheme - are fixed. An improved ICDS will do more to remove malnutrition than a mint-new, untested Food Security Act.
A larger criticism also looms: Sen himself talks about the state providing public goods universally. But isn't he needlessly expanding the idea of public goods to welfare in general?
If the first public good is public security, then we must invest in better policing and an improved judiciary. This is what Delhi's gangrape protests are all about.
Sure, providing clean water, toilets and education and food security are also basic, but these are lower order public goods, and partly private goods.
Economist Ajay Shah explains the difference: "Economists distinguish between public goods and private goods. Public goods are defined to be those that are 'non-rival' (your consumption of safety does not reduce my consumption of safety) and 'non-excludable' (it is impossible to exclude a new born child from the environment of safety). The legitimate purpose of the state is to pursue public goods. All citizens gain from public goods, and all voters should respond to these benefits. The first and most important public good is safety, which requires building the army, the police and the courts."
He adds the irony: "The Indian state has, instead, gone off on the adventure of building welfare programmes: of government giving private goods to marginal voters. The first priority of the Indian state is the themes of poverty, inequality and welfare programmes. Politicians need to learn that this hurts."
Nobel laureates should be talking about building the state's implementation and execution capabilities to get more bang for the taxpayers' buck, not calling for yet another freebie scheme that is ill-thought-out. Sen should know that politicians will merely use his intellectual support for food security as a licence to launch yet another mindless public spending scheme to win votes.
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