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Food security bill – hope and despair!
Though the food security bill has been finally approved by a group of ministers to be presented before the parliament, what might finally take shape as the National Food Security Act is being questioned. Will the entire idea of food security for all fructify?
Issue Date - 19/01/2012
Do you remember the pre-election days in 2009, when there was a lot of talk around ensuring the ‘food for all’ concept doing the rounds? After delays in the process of finalisation of a Food Security Bill for around two years, the government has now finally approved a draft of the proposed legislation to be put before the Parliament for discussion and subsequent approval. But will the expected bold measures really address problems causing starvation deaths? Also, will the bill in actuality ensure food for the most vulnerable classes of the Indian society?

The purpose of the bill, at the time when it was being conceptualised, was backed by the idea of protecting the human right to live in dignity, free of hunger, food insecurity and starvation deaths. The National Advisory Council (NAC), which had taken up the task of preparing a detailed framework on the National Food Security Act (NFSA) and had even come up with some radical measures earlier, now looks willing to compromise on some key fundamental issues. Says John Dreze, Economist and former member of the NAC, “The NAC has proposed a framework for the NFSA. But its potential could be wasted by a flawed approach to the Public Distribution System (PDS).” Dreze has been instrumental in drafting the NAC’s Food Security Bill and the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA). Dreze had quit the NAC soon after the Food Security Bill was formally adopted on June 22, 2011. He left the council formally on grounds that his work had ended with the adoption of the Bill and that he saw no reason for his tenure (or that of the NAC members) to be renewed this year.

Yet, Dreze has been critical of the government draft of the Food Security Bill. Dreze fears that en route to meeting the basic requirements for a universalised system of public distribution, the draft may end up depriving people of existing rights on various counts – despite an opportunity created through huge buffer stocks.

To that effect, there are a few reasons that could prove to be bottlenecks in the effective implementation of this critical policy. One issue lies with the government’s approach to minimise its own obligations by restricting the number of eligible households and the entitlement. At the Chief Ministers’ Conference in February 2010, the government’s agenda paper gave the total number of APL (above poverty line) and BPL (below poverty line) households across India, covered by the Targeted Public Distribution System (PDS) as 18.03 crore households, which effectively worked out to about 90% of the population based on the projections used by the Central government. However, the worrying factor is that the Bill sets a cap of 75% households in rural India and merely 50% in urban India. What this translates into is that many families holding APL cards would be excluded from the PDS. In this approach, the PDS rests on a three-way division of the population – priority, general and excluded households. Priority households, covering at least 46% of the rural Indian population, are to get 35 kg of grain a month at Antyodaya prices (Rs.3 a kg for rice, Rs.2 for wheat and Re.1 for millets).

General households will get 20 kg at not more than half of the Minimum Support Price. And excluded households, which account for 10% of the rural population, will get nothing. Moreover, the coverage of ‘priority groups’ under the PDS is also restricted to households below the Planning Commission’s strange poverty line of Rs.30 per day.

Then there were also discussions on whether the benefits should be provided through a cash transfer system or subsidies. The Bill now allows the government to introduce a scheme of cash transfers in lieu of entitlements. The PDS in India has been defunct for long now and it is nothing new. However, an independent survey carried out by a group of student volunteers and research scholars, including Dreze, found that the PDS was in the process of recovery. “The issue is that the BPL list is totally defective. In many states, entire communities have been left out. There are massive inclusion errors which have reduced the effectiveness of the PDS as a tool for food security,” a communiqué sent to the PM by this group read, adding, “We support the case for a near universal PDS, whereby all households are entitled to food subsidies unless they meet well defined exclusion criteria.” This has led to many respondents in the said survey opting for subsidies against the government’s cash transfer proposal. Fear of misuse of cash, traders raising prices if PDS were closed, and bitter experiences of the banking system in the context of NREGA wage payments have also prompted families to support the PDS.

At the heart of the debate is the difference between the Centre and the states, as is the case with most welfare schemes of the government. The Planning Commission’s poverty estimators are just one part of it. More importantly, the Bill ignores the State government’s estimation of BPL families. As opposed to 6.52 crore families recognised by the Central government as being poor, state governments, based on their own estimation, have extended BPL coverage to 11.03 crore households, comprising 56% of the population. The Bill, however, puts a cap on BPL households at 46% in the rural areas and just 28% in the urban areas. The government’s move to free itself of accountability may also become a major area of concern. “Full powers have been given to the Central government, including powers to modify or withdraw most entitlements, and to specify the sharing of costs with the state governments,” a critique of the government draft states. While the entitlements of the priority groups have been moved to a schedule (so that they can be modified at will), the general category, which is only entitled to 3 kg per person per month, is also at risk of losing these entitlements if the Centre wishes. Most of the transparency provisions in the NAC draft have also been excluded from the Bill.

To be fair to NAC, the purpose of the legislation on food security, which was earlier an exclusive premise of the NAC, actually lost its teeth soon after government bodies got involved in the process.

Debates began that unfortunately led to the NAC succumbing to political pressure. The whole case of ensuring ‘food for all’ was lost. However, there are still a few positives that emerge from this forward movement, says senior economic expert Suvrokamal Dutta. “Even if the legislation was to be approved in the current form, something which looks very unlikely, it is a big leap ahead. I agree there is a lot more that is to be done in this front... but target groups need to be clearly defined, and there should be a pan-India survey conducted for this purpose. The targeted PDS could prove as a bottleneck for the government while implementing the NFSA. Still, it is a significant move ahead,” he says.


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