Millennium Post

More bites less to chew

First, the mind-blowing figure: 8,13,373,000 or 813 million to round it off. That is two-thirds of this populous country and the number of people who will be covered by the National Food Security Act once the government pushes it through Rajya Sabha after its victory in Lok Sabha on 26 August. A law that makes access to basic foodgrain to such a vast number a legal entitlement – they can claim monetary compensation in case of failure to supply is unprecedented globally, but the fierce controversy it has generated is a misunderstanding of how this coverage is achieved.

The National Food Security Bill 2013 (NFSB), which aims to replace the similarly titled ordinance passed on 5 July, is not as radical as it is made out to be. Nor will it punch a hole in the GDP, as its critics claim. What the ordinance, and now the Bill to replace it, promises, is not much; it all depends on which state one belongs to, or which side of the economic and political divide one comes from. The food entitlements it promises to 67 per cent of the population – 75 per cent in rural and 50 per cent in urban areas – are national ratios but adjusted proportionately so that the coverage is higher in poorer states. As such, the more populous states which also have the highest poverty rates get coverage that exceeds the national average for both their rural and urban population. Uttar Pradesh, notorious for its poor PDS, will have a whopping 152 million of its 199 million people covered under the new law. Correspondingly, a large number of states which are among the better off will see their entitlements snipped drastically.

‘For Tamil Nadu, this is actually a Food Insecurity Ordinance. I have strong reasons to suspect that the central government is deliberately trying to create a food security crisis for the state,’ charges Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa, who has opposed outright the UPA government’s design of food security. The state has been running a universal PDS for several decades now, a highly praised system that is credited with wiping out much of its poverty. According to the latest figures released by the Planning Commission, Tamil Nadu’s poverty rate based on the Tendul kar methodology is just 11.28 per cent compared with nearly 40 per cent for Chhattisgarh and close to 37 per cent for Jharkhand and Manipur. These states, and others like Bihar, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh, get coverage of 80 per cent and higher for their rural population.
Basically, the Bill guarantees every person belonging to ‘eligible households’ or those categorised below poverty line (BPL) five kg of foodgrain every month at highly subsidised rates of
Rs1/2/3 per kg of millets/wheat/rice under the targeted public distribution system (TPDS).

Another 24.3 million of the poorest of the poor families covered under the current Antyodaya Anna Yojana (AAY) scheme would get 35 kg foodgrain per family per month. It is this part of the Bill, the grains allocation from the central pool, that has generated most heat, while its other aspects which claim to follow a ‘life cycle approach’ have been glossed over.
One reason is that NFSB does no more than consolidate several food-related programmes that have been in operation for decades: the anganwadi scheme that looks after the nutritional needs of children aged 0-6 years, the midday meal scheme that provides hot, cooked meal to children in primary and elementary school (up to 14 years of age). While anganwadis came under the Integrated Child Development Scheme running since 1975, admittedly haphazardly and in select areas, the midday meal scheme has been mandatory since 2001 under Supreme Court orders. Under the new dispensation, children between six months and six years get to either take home ration or cooked meal that gives them 500-800 calories.

Significantly new are maternity benefits. Every pregnant woman and lactating mother is entitled to free meals during pregnancy and six months after child birth, through the local anganwadi, apart from maternity benefit of not less than
Rs 6,000 in installments. It is these facets that health experts believe could have some impact on the country’s dismal record in fighting child malnutrition, female anaemia and maternal health.

However, the early drafts of the Bill, from the time it was incubated in Sonia Gandhi’s National Advisory Committee (NAC), included provisions that truly make for food security: special entitlements for vulnerable groups, provisions for the destitute and community kitchens along with markedly strong accountability measures. What now constitutes NFSB is no more than the minimum measure for subsistence, a fact that cannot be glossed over.

An analysis of how PDS works throws an interesting mosaic of entitlements and rates at which food is given to different categories of those considered eligible for subsidies. West Bengal, for instance, has apart from BPL, AAY and APL (above poverty line) categories, additional quotas with differential pricing for tea garden workers and those living in areas of Maoist insurgency. The new food security scheme, it calculates, will cost an additional Rs 7,000 crore, an outgo that the state government can ill afford given its current financial crisis.

For decades, foodgrain, mainly rice and wheat, have been distributed at subsidised prices according to the type of ration card people possess—AAY, BPL and APL. The bulk of food subsidies are meant for BPL households but the process of targeting these has always been contentious and unreliable. Surveys show that a substantial number, about 50 per cent, does not possess the prized BPL card.
In states where PDS is efficient, the coverage, too, is extensive.  Although the introduction of TPDS in 1997 by the Centre as part of its economic reforms slashed allocations and confined subsidies only to BPL households, Kerala continued its universal rationing system. It did not exclude APL from PDS since this category comprises farmers, wage labourers and agricultural workers. In addition, Jayalalithaa has opened a string of Amma Canteens that offer hygienically cooked food at unbelievably cheap prices.

As states and the Centre spar over prices and assurances as the NFSB heads for its denouement in Parliament, a number of states are holding their breath over the outcome. While these states had to fall in line perforce, there is huge unease over what the future portends.
On arrangement with Down to Earth magazine
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