May 19, 2014

A PEEP at Food Security

How do you begin a conversation with someone who hasn't had anything to eat last night? How do you return the generosity of someone who cooks for you in their house and who you are unlikely to ever meet again? How relevant are these people to national policy debates on food security?

In answering these questions, this article presents some of the findings from a survey, Public Evaluation of Entitlement Programmes (PEEP) initiated by researchers at the Indian Institute of Technology Delhi in May-June 2013. Primarily, the PEEP survey is in the mode of 'Research for Action’, i.e. the ability of effective research to bring about social change by people themselves. Secondly field based evidence is immensely valuable in policy and national legislation. Given the timing of the survey, this was demonstrated in the debates around the National Food Security Act (NFSA).

As Dr. Dreze in 'On Research and Action' argues, governments are given lopsided importance as agents of change to bring about “better policies”. Instead, there is a special value in the ability of people themselves to bring about change with the use of research. Real-world involvement to conduct and use scientific research can only enhance its value. Keeping in line with these principles, PEEP was conducted with close co-ordination with grass-root organisations in ten states. The survey team consisted of university volunteers as well volunteers from local organisations. Apart from collecting data, teams were encouraged to take initiative based on the findings, i.e take some “Action”.

In Latehar, Jharkhand a massive public hearing was organised by the team with support from the local organisation, 'NREGA Sahayta Kendra'. Attended by officials as well as people from the area, findings of the survey were presented. Several grievances were heard and decisions on follow up action were taken. The Odisha team filed a complaint regarding the embezzlement of pension funds by a functionary of Nuagaon Block. Following this, the Principal Secretary ordered the amount to be recovered which has been partially done. In Rajasthan, several impromptu meetings were held at NREGA work sites. Muster rolls with peoples’ attendance were read out and the basic worker entitlements were discussed.

The manner in which the survey is conducted is crucial to be able to do even these kinds of limited interventions. PEEP teams spent two nights in each of the eighty villages that were part of the random sample set. Staying with a family, noting the rhythm of a household and casual conversations over cooking and eating food reveal what no questionnaire can. One realises that aspirations for a better future are universal. Frustration with the ineffectiveness of government schemes is acutely felt. Not being literate magnifies one's vulnerability vis a viz the state. One also learns of inter-sectionality, like for example, the anganwadi worker may also be a NREGA worker and part of a self help group co-operative running the local ration shop. An old age pensioner may also be an astute farmer and seed entrepreneur.

This is important to keep in mind as research continues to be mainly used as inputs into policy and legislation making. At the time of the survey, the Indian Parliament had not yet passed the National Food Security Act (NFSA) which brings substantial reform to the Public Distribution System (PDS). The crux of the food security debate related to identifying beneficiaries, i.e whether a universal or targeted approach should be adopted. This would directly determine the cost and the entitlements of the scheme and indirectly impact service delivery and magnitude of leakages.

Drafts of the NFSA had proposed various combinations to re-organise the PDS; a network of fair price shops in every rural habitation, through which state governments provide subsidised grain and other essential items varying according to ration cards. Families are thus divided into B.P.L. (Below Poverty Line) and A.P.L. (Above Poverty Line). The ineffective divisiveness of this method, with its unacceptably high inclusion and exclusion errors has been well documented. For example, in Rajasthan we found that most A.P.L. families were unaware of their entitlements. Not only had they not received any grain for the last few months, their ration cards falsely recorded that they had, indicating possible fraud. In Uttar Pradesh, the A.P.L. quota is almost entirely sold in the black market. Evidence from the PEEP survey strongly suggests that states with near universal coverage, such as Tamil Nadu, Himachal Pradesh and Chhattisgarh are better performers. These states have their own identification criteria, moving beyond the mandated APL-BPL. A more inclusive approach with strong political commitment at the state level has clearly worked.

The NFSA as passed in August 2013, makes some headway as it will now cover 75% of rural population and 50% of urban population and not restrict itself to APL-BPL. The articulation of this position – an inclusive rather than targeted approach directly affects performance, has emerged not just from PEEP but several such surveys and studies.

For me, all the national debates on the need for the NFSA were definitively put to rest with one question that was asked as part of the survey; 'What did you eat last night?' While answering this, people would invariably laugh and get slightly abashed. Gita Bhai from Basthooni panchayat in Baran, Rajasthan was so tickled at the thought of eating fish and mangoes that she couldn't stop laughing. Some of people’s reactions to this question have been complied in this video. The figures tell us that 66% of the respondents had vegetables and 57% had dal as part of their last meal. Less than a fifth had milk and fruit, meat and eggs were even harder to come by. What these figures also mean is that people, who didn't have dal, had just dry roti and vegetables. Those who didn't have vegetables had just roti and pickle. A statistic that was particularly alarming is that 18% had slept hungry at some point in the last three months.

The matter of fact-ness with which people stated their hunger and the regularity of shortage of food in the household was disconcerting. In a genuine democracy people like Gita Bhai would also have a chance to participate – not just as a beneficiary, but as an active determinant in the design and funding of state schemes intended to benefit her. Thus principles that have emerged from years of governance, such as transparency of expenditure, accountability of functionaries, decentralised grievance redress structures and community monitoring should be the basis of delivery of these schemes. Even as these efforts are important, sustained public action outside state structures is the route of genuine empowerment among people. This in turn will only help people better access their entitlements vis a viz the state.

(As published in NewsYaps)  

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