Food for all will remain a mirage till the centre and the States agree to sup together, says Bhavdeep Kang
THE FLAGSHIP scheme of UPA II, the proposed National Food Security Act (NFSA), has become a policymaker’s nightmare. If suggestions by the Finance Ministry (reportedly at the instance of Congress President Sonia Gandhi) and the state governments are incorporated, the yearly food grain requirement would be close to 80 million tonnes. But considering food grain procurement in an average year is 40 to 41 million tonnes — half the amount that is needed — how will this gap be bridged?
The point was raised at the meeting of the Empowered Group of Ministers (EGoM) earlier this year: “The allocation under Targeted Public Distribution System (TPDS) and other welfare schemes this year has been 56 MT, against which the offtake will be around 43-46 MT for PDS and another 3.5 MT for other schemes. Availability of food grains for ensuring food security could become an issue.” Therefore, to ensure that demand does not exceed supply, it proposed “shrinking” of the food security net by limiting the number of beneficiaries and reducing their entitlements. This led the EGoM meeting to covering only BPL (Below Poverty Line) families under the NFSA, and entitling 25 kg of food grains per family per month — 10 kg less than the existing norm. It was also decided to confine the NFSA’s role to ensuring “food grain security” and its de-linking from the “larger issue” of nutritional security.
Expectedly, none of this found favour with either the state governments or the Congress high command, and Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee’s office sent a harshly-worded note to the Food and Agriculture Ministry questioning the limited coverage, BPL quotas, inadequate emphasis on PDS reform and the weak accountability and grievance redressal mechanism.
The note also sought fixing of the number of beneficiaries. But then, just how many BPL families are there? That depends on who you ask. Currently, the government recognises 6.52 crore BPL families, but there are 10.98 crore BPL ration cards. Similarly, there are 11.52 crore APL families, but 13.26 crore ration cards. “Whatever we do, we should not reduce coverage of BPL families to below 10.8 crore,” says the note, which is highly critical of the NFSA.
The Tendulkar Committee estimates BPL families at 8.14 crore; the Saxena Group at 10.87 crore; and the Sengupta Commission at 16.75 crore. Given that the NFSA is justiciable — the government can be taken to court for failing to deliver —the list of beneficiaries is important.
All state governments are in favour of revising the 6.52 crore BPL figure and retaining the 35 kg per family norm; and they all want APL families to be included under the NFSA. In fact the most populous states — Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra, Bihar, West Bengal and Punjab — have said the entitlement should be for the individual rather than the family. A per capita approach might raise the food grain requirement even higher.
“The 35 kg per family norm presumes a poor family of five will consume 70 kg of food grains a month. The TPDS aims at catering to 50 percent of this requirement,” says environmentalist and scientist Dr Vandana Shiva, who calls this institutionalising aadha pet (under-feeding).
It was also proposed that the separate category of Antodaya Annapurna Yojana (AAY), numbering 2.43 crore families and comprising the poorest of the poor, be merged with BPL. But again, the Finance Minister will have none of this. He is totally against a ceiling on entitlements under the AAY for single women, the aged, the urban homeless, street children, primitive tribal groups and the destitute.
The mechanism dealing with food security violations — previously the sole domain of the district administration — could also be reviewed after Mukherjee intervened in favour of an “independent oversight/accountability and grievance” cell. Charging the machinery that is responsible for the Act’s implementation with oversight and accountability functions constitutes a conflict of interest, says the note, resulting in the failure of the existing PDS.
The need for a law on right to food is underlined by the rising demand for food grains under TPDS over the last five years: the offtake was 29.3 MT in 2004-5 and 34.6 MT in 2008-9. Meanwhile, a few good harvests will surely help.