Rather than assisting states in the implementation of the Food Security Act, recent orders of the Ministry of Food seem to indicate the Centre is setting up barriers by burdening them with bogus additional requirements
On July 7, 2015 the Union minister of consumer affairs, food and public distribution, Ram Vilas Paswan cracked the whip in a meeting with state food ministers by announcing that states that do not implement the National Food Security Act (NFSA) by the end of September will not be entitled to receive additional food grains from the Centre for the above poverty line (APL) and below poverty line (BPL) families. The warning was a stern reminder of the ministry’s orders dated April 9 and April 10, 2015.
The additional food grains form a significant share of the overall grain that states receive from the Centre. In the financial year 2014-15, this share was 12% of the total food grain allocation under the Targeted Public Distribution System (TDPS).
The food minister’s warning at first appeared to be pushing the states to finally gear up to get the Act rolling after a two-year delay. In reality, it ends up harming the PDS beneficiaries, as 18 out of 23 states that have not yet implemented the NFSA have declared their inability to meet the September deadline. The reduced supply to the states ultimately means fewer grains to be distributed amongst the needy households.
The NFSA that was passed in September 2013 (preceded by an Ordinance in July 2013) gave the states one year’s time to complete identification of beneficiaries. By July 2014, all provisions of the Act should have been implemented across the country.
As per the Department of Food and Public Distribution’s latest data up to April 2015, 30 out of 36 states/union territories have not identified the complete quota of households that are entitled to subsidised food grains under the TPDS. Even in the states and union territories that implement NFSA (excluding West Bengal and Lakshadweep), the coverage is short by about 172.52 lakh persons.
To meet the Act’s requirement of covering 75% of rural and 50% of urban population, more than 80 crore persons have to be identified.
This identification of eligible households was to be based on the socio-economic status of the households. For this, many states were relying on the Socio Economic Caste Census (SECC) conducted in 2011. However, this data was released only in June 2015. The final lists for 149 out of 640 districts surveyed have still not published.
In the absence of any recent comprehensive data, states that implemented the Act initially such as Rajasthan, Delhi, Himachal Pradesh and Haryana have continued to use the old BPL lists – notorious for their high level of inclusion and exclusion errors – to distribute new cards. This amounts to depriving deserving households of their entitlement to subsidised food grains.
Meanwhile, Bihar, the one state that has used the SECC data, has had a positive experience so far, while Madhya Pradesh created its own database and criteria put together by the state’s Samagra Samajik Suraksha Mission.
Many of the 23 non-NFSA states/UTs neither have adequate grain storage facilities nor a system of door-step delivery of grains to fair price shops (FPS) – both requirements that the Centre stresses are mandatory. An effective grievance redress mechanism to implement the Act is also missing and after much struggle, most of the states have now completed one or more aspects of end-to-end computerisation of TPDS operations.
These so-called ‘mandatory requirements’ are additions by the current National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government and not pre-requisites as per the Act. Though most of the states are advancing towards improvising end-to-end computerisation and delivery systems, making these requirements mandatory for implementation has pushed the states a step back in making an encouraging move towards ensuring food safety.
In this situation, 23 states/UTs continue to provide food grains at rates that existed before the NFSA. Neither have they revised the rates or quantities of grains distributed as per the Act nor is their list of beneficiaries updated. The ultimate losers in this delay are the poor – some of whom now stand to lose even what they are currently getting if their state government fails to meet the September deadline.
Cash not a magic bullet
Instead of focusing on implementation of the NFSA in the current form where one of the provisions is to provide subsidized food grains to the poor, the Centre is preparing to move towards replacing them with cash entitlements, a move that has been widely criticised. A pilot has been announced in Chandigarh, which is yet to identify almost half of its beneficiaries under the NFSA. Puducherry has had a failed pilot but is restarting cash transfers again. The government’s justification that cash transfers will reduce leakages in TPDS 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.
Shrinking AAY coverage
In another move directed at further narrowing the scope and effectiveness of the TPDS under the NFSA, the Union food ministry – through its order dated March 20, 2015 – directed all states to freeze the list of those under the Antyodaya Anna Yojana (AAY) category, meant for the most vulnerable of the poor.
The order says that in cases where families cease to fall under the AAY category due to an elevation in income of the household, death of the card holder or migration outside the state, no AAY cards should be issued to new households in their place. In simple terms, it means a partial phasing out of the AAY scheme.
The AAY covers a number of old persons, widows and single women-headed families – all of whom are currently receiving 35 kg food grains per household per month at the rate of Rs. 3/ per kg rice/wheat irrespective of household size. Many of these households are the most vulnerable and often depend entirely on the TPDS for their food grains requirement. Further, Supreme Court orders of 2003 also mandate that persons belonging to primitive tribes or with a disabled adult too should be given AAY cards, which will be violated if the scheme itself is shut down.
If we take a step back and analyse the current status of AAY coverage, we find that 12 states/union territories are yet to cover even their current AAY quotas as per data shared by the Union food ministry on June 30 2015 in the Rajya Sabha. In five of the 13 states/union territories that now implement NFSA, approximately 7.35 lakh households can be added to the AAY category within the existing limits. The March 2015 order restricts a provision of the Act that has not yet realized its potential.
These recent orders of the Ministry of Food seem to indicate that the Centre, rather than assisting states in implementation, is setting up barriers by burdening them with bogus additional requirements. While many of the suggested reforms in the TPDS are indeed desirable, the question is whether they should be made mandatory for implementing the Act – as that will only further delay the entitlements reaching the poor. The immediate requirement is for states to identify the priority households under the NFSA in an objective and fair manner. The worst affected in this tussle between the Centre and the states are the poor who are being denied subsidised food grains in spite having a legal entitlement.
Shikha Nehra and Sonal Matharu are research associates at the Centre for Equity Studies