On Monday, Food Minister Ram Vilas Paswan said that all states and Union Territories of the country, except Tamil Nadu, will implement the landmark National Food Security Act (NFSA) by March. The Act provides two-thirds of India’s populace five kilograms of subsidised grains each month. Suffice to say, such an announcement has been a long overdue. The law was passed by the Parliament in 2013 and state governments were given a year to implement it. The deadline has since been extended thrice, with the latest one ending in September, according to various news agencies. Food entitlements are an absolute necessity, considering that vast sections of the Indian populace are not well-off. Moreover, according to the United Nations Children’s Fund, approximately 48 percent of India’s children suffer from stunted physical growth. Make no mistake, it’s a cause for deep concern. Malnutrition, and especially stunting, is one of the least recognised crises for children world over.
Stunted growth among children is a consequence of malnutrition in the first 1000 days of an infant’s life, including pre-natal period. What’s worse, numerous studies have shown that ill-effects of malnutrition at tender ages result in irreversible health consequences. These studies have gone on to suggest that learning of stunted children is slower in school. Consequently, they are more likely to find themselves to live in poverty and go on to have children also stunted by poor nutrition. This vicious cycle of poverty only widens the gap between the rich and poor. “You can feed up an underweight child, but with a stunted child, because of the effects on the brain, there is a permanently reduced cognitive capacity by the age of around two years old,” said Antony Lake, the executive director of the United Nations Children’s Fund.
In the context of the food security debate in India, it is imperative to understand that poor nutrition is not a consequence for a lack of food. In fact, according to most reports, India is food secure. However, this does not mean that food is being distributed equitably. In light of such disturbing facts, one is surprised by the Centre’s decision to effectively phase out the Antyodaya food scheme launched by the previous NDA government under Atal Bihari Vajpayee. The Antyodaya Anna Yojana (AAY) is an Indian government sponsored scheme for the allocation of food grains to the poorest of the poor families. It is safe to say that such schemes, allied with other government-sponsored programmes like the Integrated Child Development Services, have played a significant part in reducing the number of stunted children less than five years of age by 9.1 percentage points in eight years. This figure was arrived at last year by a renowned global think-tank on food security called the International Food Policy Research Institute. To make matter worse, in February, the National Democratic Alliance government halved the funds for the crucial scheme in the Union budget, from Rs 18,681 crore to Rs 8,335 crore for 2015-16. In certain states, unfortunately, more inane policy decisions surrounding the food security of young impoverished children have come to light. Although 52 percent of children in Madhya Pradesh are malnourished, its Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan, earlier this year, saw it fit to shoot down a proposal to include either egg curry or boiled eggs in Anganwadi meals on a pilot basis in three tribal districts. Elsewhere, however, state governments are devising more efficient ways of bringing food to the doorstep of the poor. Fair price shops in Delhi will be linked to a biometric system by early next year, work for which has begun. Such a step has been essentially aimed at curbing corruption and irregularities in the Public Distribution System (PDS). However, such a policy measure may not be enough, considering the current government’s obsession with replacing subsidised food grains with cash entitlements.
“The government’s justification that cash transfers will reduce leakages in TPDS (Targeted Public Distribution System) is misplaced. The way to reduce leakage in TPDS operations is through robust identification and reforms, as exemplified by Bihar. Besides, even if the government replaces food grains with cash, it will still need a revised list of eligible beneficiaries, which if not identified efficaciously would cause leakages as in food grains transfer. Hence, the focus should be on expanding coverage under the NFSA, finalising the lists of rightful beneficiaries and setting up an effective grievance redress mechanism and not replacing TPDS with cash,” according to researchers at the Centre for Equity Studies, an autonomous institution engaged in research and advocacy on issues of social and economic justice and equity. Fortunately, Paswan has clarified that it is optional for states if they want to give cash subsidy. Moreover, many states and UTs have not built up the requisite institutional capacity, such as the construction of adequate grain storage facilities and a system of door-step delivery of grains to fair price shops, to implement the NFSA. Suffice to say, India’s poor could be short-changed yet again, despite the government’s best intentions.