Commentary

Amartya Sen Wrong in His Claim That Delay in Food Bill Killing a Thousand Every Week

Amartya Sen, as befits a Nobel laureate, has often produced careful calculations to throw light on dark situations, such as the number of deaths caused by Mao’s Great Leap Forward in China. So, it was astonishing to hear him say on a recent TV programme that the delay in passing the Food Security Bill was causing 1,000 deaths per week (equal to 52,000 per year).

This was not based on any known methodology — he simply plucked the figure out of the air and threw it at the audience. This startled a fellow participant, Arvind Panagariya, who let fly in a subsequent interview. “I often say in jest that serious economists are handicapped in policy debates in India because their opponents feel entitled not only to their arguments but their own facts as well! And here I was facing the same from Sen!

“Deaths often have multiple causes. In the case of children, a partial list includes premature births, low birth weight, infections, congenital diseases, accidents, poor water quality, poor medical assistance and poor diet. I am mystified how Sen can attribute a precise number of child deaths to the absence of a policy that has not been in place for a single day, a policy that is subject to so many lapses and leakages along the implementation chain, whose impact critically depends on how the beneficiaries adjust their consumption in response to it, and which can, after all, potentially impact only calorie intake and not other causes of death.”

Sen had said a few days earlier that delays in the Food Security Bill’s passage could cause deaths, but this seemed not to attract public attention. “To capture people’s attention, you have to have a number,” Sen declared.

And so, he duly produced a number — 1,000 deaths a week — simply to catch people’s attention. Thus has a Nobel laureate become a pamphleteer, inventing figures like any populist politician.

Scathing Comment

He certainly caught the media’s attention, but not in the manner he expected. Rather, he attracted much scathing comment. For instance, a news portal said, “It is becoming increasingly difficult to retain respect for Nobel laureate Amartya Sen. He seems to surface in the media every time the UPA government is about to legislate its pet follies, providing intellectual succour to mindless spending and corruption.”

As for calculating the impact of the Bill, a columnist in a business newspaper has made an attempt. He says implementing the Bill will cost around Rs 6,00,000 crore over three years, of which leakages will be 40-50%, or up to Rs 3,00,000 crore.

The adverse consequences of such mismanagement of government finances could kill rather than save lives. One survey in eastern UP by Kripa Shankar revealed, shockingly, that not a single family among all those surveyed got anything from ration shops. One shop owner defended himself saying he had to pay bribes to FCI staff and grain transporters. So, given the thin official margin allowed for PDS sales, he said he had no option but to sell most of the grain in the open market!

Recently, states like Tamil Nadu and Chhattisgarh have reduced leakages substantially. This is heartening. But in these states, the Food Security Bill will have no impact at all. Why? Well, the Bill provides for 5 kg of wheat or rice per eligible person at Rs 2 and Rs 3 respectively per kilo. However, many states — Tamil Nadu, Kerala, AP, Chhattisgarh, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh and Odisha — already provide grain at Rs 1-3 per kilo using state-level subsidies.

In such states, the central Bill will not reduce the price to the consumer at all: it will just reduce the state’s own food subsidy, freeing state governments to divert supposed food security money to anything they like.

Saree Security Bill

Much diverted money will inevitably end up in corrupt schemes that enrich politicians and bureaucrats. The tip of this iceberg was revealed when one raid on Jayalalithaa uncovered 10,000 sarees and 750 pairs of shoes.

Many Indian politicians have accumulated more illegal wealth than even former Filipino dictator Ferdinand Marcos and his wife did.

Grain of Truth

This is a short, incomplete list of the flaws of the Bill. If Sen does want to calculate its real impact, as distinct from pamphleteering, here is a quick list of things to calculate.

How many will die because of the opportunity cost of leakage of hundreds of thousands of crores?

If government buys wheat from a farmer at Rs 13.50 a kg, adds another Rs 10 a kg in sundry expenses, and sells the wheat back to the farmer at Rs 2 a kg, it loses Rs 21.50 a kg.

How does this improve food security?

How much additional money will be made by (a) politicians, (b) FCI staff, (c) state staff, (d) grain transporters, and (e) crooked shopkeepers?

How many additional sarees and pairs of shoes will accrue to CMs (or their wives and mistresses)?

How much money and how many lives could be saved by shifting to cash transfers from the corrupt, inefficient physical delivery of grain?

Finally, even if the Bill saves 50,000 lives, it will cost an additional Rs 50,000 crore. Aren’t there cheaper ways of saving lives than Rs 1 crore per head?

Swaminathan Anklesaria Aiyar is a Research Fellow at the Cato Institute’s Centre for Global Liberty and Prosperity.