Unwelcome surprise

Published : Sep 24, 2010 00:00 IST

A FAIR PRICE shop in Chennai. A system that deprives households deemed to be above some arbitrary poverty line of sufficient foodgrain at reasonable prices will end up reducing the consumption levels of women and girls.-R. RAGU

A FAIR PRICE shop in Chennai. A system that deprives households deemed to be above some arbitrary poverty line of sufficient foodgrain at reasonable prices will end up reducing the consumption levels of women and girls.-R. RAGU

In pushing for a greatly truncated PDS, the Food Security Bill proposed by the NAC, which has many right-to-food activists, undermines the PDS itself.

ENSURING food security was the big promise of United Progressive Alliance-2. The promise to enact legislation to ensure a minimum quantity of affordable food to all poor households in the country was part of the election manifesto of the Congress party that leads the government. The 100-day agenda of the government made it a priority even as rising food prices made the quotidian task of ensuring adequate food much more difficult for the majority of the country.

It has indeed been obvious for some time that, given the centrality and urgency of the problems of rising food prices and growing food insecurity in the country, delivering on this one issue would give the government the stamp of popular approval, regardless of the impact of its other policies. Quick and decisive action on this crucial front was, therefore, widely expected of the Central government.

But the Central government seemed to have lost its way in this matter as in several other areas. It was caught by self-created doubts with respect to the spending implications of providing adequate food to those who need it, and fiscal parsimony seemed to prevail over the needs of the hungry. Thus, an early version of the proposed Food Security Bill sent by the Central Ministry of Food and Public Distribution to State governments was shocking in how little it aimed to provide: reducing the foodgrain delivery to 25 kilograms per household per month compared with the 35 kg promised earlier; confining the promise of food security to only those households who hold below poverty line (BPL) cards; leaving open the possibility for State governments to substitute cash transfers for the physical delivery of foodgrains.

This draft was critiqued roundly by State governments as well as by those activists and political parties that have been involved actively in campaigning for a universal and affordable public food distribution. When the National Advisory Council (NAC) a body headed by Congress president Sonia Gandhi was reconstituted to include a number of activists who have been crucial in the campaign to enforce the right to food, it was announced that the formulation of an appropriate Bill would be the first item on its agenda. This gave rise to renewed hope that the legislation on this matter might actually turn out to be one that did provide this right to every citizen.

That is why the draft that has come out of the NAC deliberations has come as such an unwelcome surprise. If anything, it is just as bad as the earlier version circulated by bureaucrats from the Central Ministry. Far from altering the unfair division of people into BPL beneficiaries and others who would be excluded from the public distribution system (PDS), it reinforces the division, and adds to it another even more egregious distinction based on location. It is hard to believe that such a draft Bill could be produced by people who have been campaigning actively and often passionately for the right to food.

The main pillar of the proposed legislation is what is called an inclusive and expanded PDS which turns out to involve almost the opposite. The NAC has proposed one of two alternatives for rural areas: (1) to cover 80 per cent of rural households with 35 kg of grain a month at Rs.3 per kg; or (2) to cover 42 per cent of rural households with 35 kg of grain a month at Rs.3 per kg and the rest of the rural households with 25 kg of grain at Rs.5 or Rs.5.70 a kg. In urban areas, only 33 per cent of households are to be covered with 35 kg of grain every month at Rs.3 per kg, and these households are to be identified as those who are homeless, or slum residents, or in vulnerable occupations or socially vulnerable.

Not only are these extraordinary (and often very fine) distinctions to be made in order to determine which households are eligible to receive the subsidised grain from the PDS, but there is further geographic exclusion as well. The so-called inclusive PDS (which actually excludes a significant part of the population and is prone to all the usual Type I errors of unfair exclusion and Type II errors of unjustified inclusion) is to be confined to 150 districts in the current year and expanded gradually to cover the rest of the country by 2014-15.

Another extremely disturbing feature of the NAC proposal is the complete silence on food distribution for the above poverty line (APL) population. In effect, this proposal amounts to a restriction on the existing functioning of the PDS, indeed a winding down, which would deprive those who are not defined as eligible according to the Act (at least 40 per cent of the population) of any access to the rationing system. This is so far from being universal or being in any way a legal guarantee to all residents of India to a range of entitlements which will ensure them the right to food and secure their nutritional status that it would be comical if it were not so tragic.

Let us consider what the actual situation on the ground is today. The PDS is based on a transfer of grain from the Central pool to the State according to a formula, and thereafter State governments have the responsibility of distributing the grain and the freedom to enlarge the system and increase the subsidy element if they so choose. Currently, at least eight States in the country distribute 35 kg of grain per household at even more subsidised prices (Re. 1 or Rs.2 a kg) in some cases to nearly the entire population.

What the proposed scheme will do is reduce effectively the amount of grain these States receive from the Central pool, and mess up their finances by forcing them to purchase more expensive grain if they want to continue the existing system. States such as Kerala and Tamil Nadu, which have the best functioning PDS, will be hit very badly. Since no grain will apparently be according to APL population, the burden on them will be even greater.

In pushing for a greatly truncated and extremely exclusionary PDS, the NAC draft effectively undermines the PDS itself. There is a large section in the draft devoted to measures for ensuring transparency and reducing corruption in the PDS, which itself is rather strange in something that purports to be legislation rather than a policy document. But more significantly it omits to note the basic point that the PDS is most successful and least leakage-prone in precisely those States where it is most tending to universal, where there is a sufficiently large body of citizenry to ensure greater accountability of the system.

There is another fundamental problem with this approach: it confuses between poverty and food insecurity. In fact, food insecurity (as evident from all nutritional outcome indicators) is much more widespread in India than income poverty or even vulnerability defined in terms of indicators such as occupation and housing condition. Further, food insecurity often varies sharply even within households, and gender differences are marked. A system that deprives households deemed to be above some arbitrary poverty line of sufficient foodgrain at reasonable prices will end up reducing the consumption levels of women and girls, adding to their health problems and affecting the development of children. The only way to avoid this is to have a universal system that provides all households equal access to grain at a reasonable rate, combined with special measures for the particularly deprived groups.


What is the thinking behind this strange and even appalling proposal? After all, many of those who have supported it in the NAC are unambiguously those who have fought and continue to fight for the rights of the average citizen, and particularly the more exploited and marginalised groups. They cannot be accused of insensitivity or indifference to the concerns of the majority of the population, and they have sufficient and constant field experience that must remind them continuously of the manifold and terrible impacts the rise in food prices is having on the lives of ordinary people. So, they are likely to be more conscious than most of the need to have a universal system that will actually ensure that no woman, man or child resident in India will sleep hungry or be malnourished.

How could they come to agree with a proposal that is so far away from the laudable and self-declared goal? The idea seems to be that the system must give as much grain as possible at Rs.3 a kg to as many people as possible within some declared fiscal limits, and simply exclude the others. The members of the NAC seem to have been cowed down excessively by technocrats who have declared the fiscal impossibility of a truly universal system and by others who have declared that a universal scheme would require grain procurement far in excess of what is feasible or likely. Let us suppose for a moment that these constraints are actually binding (which, in fact, they are not). Is there no better option than the one that has been presented?

The NAC has chosen the path of exclusion, with defined beneficiaries getting a subsidised price and nothing for the rest. But it is also possible to think even keeping within the same fiscal and foodgrain surplus constraints of a universal system at a slightly higher rate rather than the current proposal.

This has the immense merits of avoiding Type I and Type II errors and reducing the proclivity for corruption. It has the even greater merit of keeping the PDS alive, kicking and with a greater proportion of the people (including the middle class with political voice) interested in making sure it is accountable. Within this broad system, there must of course be additional measures to provide for especially vulnerable categories that need greater assistance, as in the Antyodaya scheme.

It seems that the obsessive desire to keep the price of subsidised foodgrain at the level that was promised even if only for some chosen sections and at the cost of large-scale exclusion and possible diversion has dominated over the goal of ensuring a viable and vibrant system of public procurement and distribution.

This has an additional danger. The original purpose of the PDS was to ensure the movement of grain from surplus to deficit areas. But with the new system, all the surplus grain will be allocated according to fairly rigid predetermined criteria. What happens if there is a major drought or famine-like conditions because of weather or natural calamity in a particular area? What about areas of persistent shortage and chronically deficient States?

If any system of food procurement and distribution has to cope with varying situations, it has to allow for the possibility of some people moving in and out of the system, choosing to use the ration shops when market prices are high and opting out when market prices are low. Only when the food security of the entire population is secured in a coherent manner can we be sure that we are securing the food security of its most deprived sections.

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