Jean Dreze, Economist
As I see it, the main purpose of the Food Bill is to bring some economic security in people’s lives. This is extremely important in a country where 90 percent of the workforce is in the informal sector, where wages are very low and employment is far from assured. You don’t need a PhD in economics to understand that. Whether the Food Bill will serve this purpose depends both on the details of the Bill as well as on how it is implemented. The Bill is certainly an opportunity to put the public distribution system on a new and much sounder footing, and also to consolidate other important entitlements such as children’s right to nutritious food as well as maternity entitlements. But the legislation is only a first step – the hard work starts after that.
Also, I am not concerned with the electoral consequences of this Bill. In any democracy, politicians think about votes, though they may have other motives too. If their hunger for votes helps to satisfy other people’s hunger for food, it is not a bad thing. However, I am worried that a hasty implementation of the Bill for electoral purposes might lead to an organisational mess.
I think that the main gap in the Bill is stronger provisions for grievance redressal. This is also one of the main flaws of the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, for which rural workers are paying a heavy price. Much stronger accountability provisions had been included in some of the initial drafts of the Food Bill. But they were discarded by the government as a part of its general effort to reduce the financial costs of the Bill. This is a prime case of being ‘penny wise, pound foolish’.
Jayati Ghosh, Professor and Chairperson, Centre for Economic Studies and Planning, JNU
It is nothing short of obscenity that the government doesn’t want to allow for adequate discussion on the Food Security Bill in Parliament. The basic elements of the Bill have been in discussion for four years since UPA 1. Then why doesn’t the government bring it in Parliament? Why does it want to bring an ordinance?
Secondly, this is not a Bill that I believe is either adequate or desirable. It has serious flaws. It sticks to heavy targeting, which is undesirable. The proportion of the population to be covered is based on a flawed notion of income. We know that food under-consumption is much greater in India than the income poverty as defined by the government. In fact, food insecurity is much more widespread. And even the income poverty is much worse than the government definition of less than Rs 30 a day. That is completely wrong because under nutrition in India is much greater than that.
Then, targeting in general tends to have very strong errors. It has unfair exclusion and unjustified inclusion. Targeting will also increase costs. Too much will need to be spent to figure out who is entitled and who is not. Surveys will decide who is in and who is not. What if income level falls for a family due to a death of the breadwinner or some other reason? I might take six years before a survey reclassifies that family as poor.
Then, states that do PDS very well like Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Chhattisgarh don’t do targeting. In Tamil Nadu, the DMK started it 30 years ago. In Andhra Pradesh, 84 percent of the population is already covered. It had been started by Andhra Pradesh chief minister of the time, NT Rama Rao. Chhattisgarh is a terrible state government otherwise but it has managed to improve the PDS by computerizing the process to plug the leakages. There are ways of improving the distribution by using technology. Why shouldn’t such efforts be made nationally to streamline PDS?
The Bill claims that the central government will provide for everything. But the current practice is that the Centre gives the food to the states to distribute. Some states on their own extend coverage. That is why Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Chhattisgarh have near universal coverage. What targeting will do is reduce the amount of grain going to the states that are doing a good job. They are going to get less grains at a subsidised rate.
The government should go for a universal bill. The middle class needs to be involved for any scheme to be a success. So in Kerala, if the ration shop doesn’t open then the middle class buyers will raise a stink. What we have done with government hospitals, which have suffered because the middle classes are no more engaged with it.
It would also be problematic to replace food transfer with cash transfers. Cash can be given in addition. But to replace it with cash would be disastrous. That doesn’t account for inflation. When the price of food will go up in the open market, the person given cash would buy less food. Then this system is a combination of procurement and distribution. If you won’t distribute the food, you won’t procure it. So cash transfers will be bad. Finally, the plan is very anti-women, because women and girls eat less. They themselves will practice self-denial. If you replace food with cash the men will buy consumable and with less money buy less food.
The solution is to expand and improve PDS. Aadhar would make no difference. There is a 20 percent margin of error in Aadhar as the fingerprints of manual labourers will keep changing. The problem in PDS is that of pilferage. You need to learn from the states that have resolved it. In any case, 20 percent of the population would self-exclude, not buy from ration shops. So the total cost of PDS would be 2 percent of GDP if you universalise it. Right now we are giving away 4.2 percent of GDP as tax breaks.