The standing committee of Parliament, set up to examine the National Food Security Bill (NFSB), has finally given its recommendations. With this, the Bill has moved one step closer to seeing daylight. The recommendations, which are not binding on the government, will now be considered by the Union cabinet before being put to vote in Parliament.
The recommendations are clearly an improvement over the original Bill. Perhaps the biggest change recommended by the standing committee has been the abolition of the earlier pigeonholing of citizens into “general” and “priority” groups for distribution of benefits under the public distribution system (PDS). As it stands now, the plan is for a uniform entitlement of 5kg per person for 75% of the rural population and 50% of urban population. Given the past history of targeting in India, this is a step in the right direction. While this does not mean the contentious issues of poverty ratios and poverty caps will no longer matter, the committee has not clarified the distribution of the aggregate percentage of 75% population in rural areas and 50% in urban areas across states.
This is a controversial issue. There is obviously no merit in uniform coverage of 75% across states when there is great variation among states not only in terms of poverty and deprivation but also in terms of access to food. It will be meaningless to have the 75% coverage criteria for Kerala and Punjab on the one hand, and Bihar and Uttar Pradesh on the other. While this issue still affords some systemic resolution, there is a question mark on how to exclude the top 25% in rural areas and top 50% in urban areas. Not only is it difficult to achieve a fixed number in each state, district and village but even the criteria may need to be reworked by taking into account regional variation in the level of living across states and districts.
Fortunately, the Socio-Economic and Caste Census (SECC) which will determine the eligibility of households, is almost over and a new committee has been appointed to look at the criteria. The problem of the percentage of households to be covered can also be determined based on the SECC data as long as the 75% coverage in rural and 50% coverage in urban areas is treated as a lower limit and not as the upper limit. Instead of specifying the limits, the committee should have specified the criteria for exclusion. Along with this, a simple option would have been to make the Bill universal in states and districts where the percentage of poor is more than 90%. This will not only prevent the exclusion of the poor, but will also ensure that the law can be rolled out without waiting for SECC to decide on who is eligible and who is not.
In fact, this is the big message that comes out from the recently released report by the National Sample Survey Office on Public Distribution System and Other Sources of Household Consumption based on the 2009-10 round of the consumption expenditure survey. While the report clearly shows there is improvement not only in access to PDS as a source of household consumption of cereals but that the period between 2004-05 and 2009-10 has witnessed an improvement in functioning of PDS. Interestingly, the state-wise pattern also shows improvements not only in the richer states such as Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh but also in two of the poorest states (based on 2004-05 poverty ratios), Chhattisgarh and Orissa. This has happened because these states have expanded the coverage of PDS to make it quasi-universal. It is this message that should have weighed on the minds of the committee.
But whereas the committee has certainly moved a step forward with regard to PDS, it has taken a step backward on maternal and child entitlements. In this instance, it has not only shown a disregard of the available evidence but has also demonstrated a regressive mindset. The committee’s recommendations of limiting the benefit of supplementary nutritional support and maternity benefits to only the first two children is not only regressive as it puts the burden of the third or fourth child on the mother but also seems to disregard the evidence that children born later are much more likely to be malnourished. In fact, maternal and child entitlements are a key component of the entire effort of reducing child malnutrition that remains abysmally high even today.
While some of these flaws can still be rectified when the Bill is voted on, time is running out for this government if it wants to make the Bill a reality. The committee has also recommended several measures to improve the functioning of PDS. This needs not only financial resources but also requires to bring the state governments on-board. The latter may be difficult to achieve given that some states such as Chhattisgarh have already passed their own state Acts.
Himanshu is an assistant professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University and visiting fellow at Centre de Sciences Humaines, New Delhi.