The Food Security Bill faces yet another obstacle on its way to the statute books. While both the NAC and the Government fight it out, the beneficiaries of the scheme may lose out
The National Food Security Act (FSA) has been a subject of widespread and vigorous debate for a long time now. Eminent economist Jean Dreze’s resignation from the membership of the NAC only highlights the fact that the proposed act is a highly contentious and opinionated one.
Dreze wanted the proposed FSA to cover the entire population in the country. The NAC on the other hand suggested that only 75% of the population be covered by the Act.
The Government, on 19th February, further reduced the targeted population to 70 percent from the proposed 75 percent. It has cited monetary as well as logistical constraints in covering 75 percent population. The Government estimates its procurement capacity at 50 million tonnes, whereas the proposed 75 percent coverage would require 60 million tonnes of foodgrain procurement and universal PDS would require 100 million tonnes.
The notion of targeting is flawed. First, there is no explanation as to why the rest of the population should not get the benefits of FSA. Second, given the inefficiency of our delivery system the chances of misuse and corruption remain very high. Unless the delivery mechanism is improved, the FSA may just be as ineffective as the current PDS. With the proposed direct cash transfers to the poor in the current budget, these systemic loopholes are sought to be plugged. But the efficiency of direct cash transfers when linked to the FSA may have its own limitations. Noted economist, Jayati Ghosh in her article in The Hindu on March 2, 2011, wrote that in the Indian situation cash transfers should supplement other forms of entitlements and not replace them. She also pointed out that it is easier to divert cash than foodgrains that need to be stored somewhere. Added to this is the question about ensuring that the cash given to the poor is utilized in the intended manner.
In his budget speech in the Parliament on February 28, Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee announced that the Food Security Bill will be introduced in the House later this year and therefore should come into effect only in the Twelfth Plan. By that time, the new census figures will be out and the UID would have reached a majority of the population. This would give the Government the most recent estimates of poverty. The UID would hopefully bring in the poorest of the poor into the records and enable them to avail of their entitlements.
While it is true that the UID and the Census will make the poor more accessible to the Government, it definitely does not ensure that they will actually receive their entitlements.
Noted journalist and Magsaysay Award winner, P.Sainath, in an article in The Hindu, took on the NAC for not recommending universal PDS for the entire country but restricting it to 150 poorest districts of India. He also wrote that the Food Security Bill in its present form goes against the Directive Principles of State Policy of the Indian Constitution, which are universal and not targeted.