The President’s address to Parliament has clearly laid out the priorities of the government. A crucial component of this is the proposed National Food Security Act. Although the broad contours of the proposed Act are yet to emerge, it appears less likely from media reports that it will be significantly different from what was proposed in the manifesto of the Congress party. What the Congress suggested in its manifesto is that the Act will guarantee 25kg of grain to all BPL households at Rs3 per kg.
This is not only a step back compared with what is presently offered, it hardly offers any attempt to address the larger issue of food and nutrition security. If this is the shape that the Bill takes, it will be a classic case of a missed opportunity for doing something substantial for the food security of millions of poor.
There are three essential components of this proposal that need to be fleshed out. And these revolve around the issues of what and how much to give, at what prices and to whom. There is less ambiguity on the first issue of what and how much. The present entitlement for the Antyodaya Anna Yojana (AAY) is 35kg of foodgrains per poor household. The Congress party manifesto, however, promises only 25kg per month, way below the minimum nutritional norms. Secondly, the present BPL (below poverty line) or AAY entitlements are only for foodgrains (rice and wheat) and do not provide for any other nutritional requirements such as pulses, an essential source of protein. For a nutritionally secure strategy, it is imperative that a minimum 5kg of pulses be added to the basket.
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The second key issue is at what price. While the manifesto of the Congress party promises rice or wheat at Rs3 per kg, this is no better than the existing entitlement of the AAY. It is, in fact, higher than existing price of foodgrains available to the BPL population in as many as eight major states of the country—Andhra Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Gujarat, Karnataka, Kerala, Orissa, Tamil Nadu and West Bengal. These states account for 35% of the rural population. With Madhya Pradesh promising to follow suit, at least 40% of the rural population already enjoys food at Rs3 per kg or less.
However, the third issue is the most crucial, which it is the number of beneficiaries that will be covered by the proposed food security Act. The promise made by the Congress party in its manifesto limits the entitlement to only BPL families. It is here that there is a lack of consensus between the states and the Union government. Going by the present methodology, the government estimates that 65 million households are BPL households and makes the foodgrain allocations to states based on this. This number may go down to less than 60 million if the 2004-05 estimates from the Planning Commission are taken as the basis instead of the 1993-94 poverty figures that form the basis of the current estimates.
Against this, the total number of households that have been issued either a BPL or AAY card by state governments is 106.7 million. The state governments are currently doing this by providing additional subsidies from their own budgets.
In Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, for instance, it is almost universal, with around 80% of the population covered under the subsidized food scheme. Any attempt to restrict the number of beneficiaries to the present official poverty estimates (which are known to be flawed) will, therefore, lead to a reduction in the number of beneficiaries to almost half the existing number. Further, an Act should at least guarantee as much as is already being given.
While the estimate of poverty is one issue of contention, how to identify the beneficiaries for effective targeting is also unresolved. The problems with both these are well known and have been officially acknowledged with two expert committees working on resolving these. The first committee headed by Suresh Tendulkar has been set up to examine the issue of estimation of poverty used by the Planning Commission and the second led by N.C. Saxena has been set up by the ministry of rural development to identify a suitable procedure for identification of BPL households. Both these committees are due to submit their report.
Providing subsidized grains is only one aspect of a food security Act. Such an Act should also address other issues such as malnutrition, especially among children and women, and social vulnerabilities due to barriers of age, caste, gender and disability.
Existing schemes such as the Mid-Day Meal Scheme or the Anganwadi programme for children under 6, adolescent girls, pregnant and lactating mothers should also be brought into the ambit of the Act with strengthened universal entitlements. Such an Act has the potential to ensure that no person in the country sleeps hungry, and this must be realized.
Himanshu is assistant professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University and visiting fellow at Centre de Sciences Humaines, New Delhi. Farm Truths looks at issues in agriculture and runs on alternate Wednesdays. Respond to this column at firstname.lastname@example.org