The muddle in food security

The muddle in food security

The National Advisory Council (NAC) has finally come out with its proposals for the National Food Security Act. After months of deliberations within itself and with various government departments, the proposals will form the basis of the Act to be introduced in Parliament.

However, a quick perusal of the proposals suggests that not only has NAC failed to propose anything substantial for the Act, it has in fact gone back on some of its earlier promises and failed to protect even minimum existing entitlements. In short, the proposals are to provide food security to 75% of the country’s total population, comprising 90% of the rural population and 50% of the urban population. This 75% will, however, be further divided into two categories. The priority group, comprising 46% of the rural population and 28% of the urban population, will get 35 kg of foodgrain at the rate of Rs1/kg for millets, Rs2/kg for wheat and Rs3/kg for rice. The remaining 44% of the rural population and 22% of the urban population will get 20kg per household at 50% of the minimum support price for the grains. Incidentally, even this minimum will not be implemented fully by the present government. NAC has suggested a phased implementation of the Act, with the current administration’s responsibility limited to 85% of the rural population and 40% of the urban population.

These proposals are not only disappointing, but also retrograde for a country with half of its population malnourished. In one stroke, NAC has made one-fourth of the country ineligible for food security. Contrary to media perception, the Act has not expanded the food security coverage, but has instead restricted it to 75% of the population compared with the current 100% coverage. In doing so, it hasn’t saved much on the food subsidy bill. Rather, it has made targeting of beneficiaries difficult. The proposals now seek to create three categories of population, from the existing dichotomy of below poverty line (BPL) and above poverty line (APL) categories. Given the problems with the existing distribution of ration cards in these two categories, a third category will only add to complications in identifying beneficiaries.

These anomalies may yet be corrected, depending on the final results of a pilot survey by the ministry of rural development for a suitable methodology for identifying the poor. But in the process, NAC has again relied on the much-maligned BPL census for effective delivery of foodgrains. It has even gone back on its earlier promise of universal access to foodgrains in the 150 poorest districts of the country, most of which are affected by Naxal violence and the accompanying governance failures.

Unfortunately, even the other proposals that NAC has put forward are nothing but a reiteration of existing entitlements. It has decided to call the poor “priority households" and the non-poor “general households". But while the nomenclature does away with the notion of poor, the categories themselves are nothing but the officially accepted poverty estimates of the Tendulkar committee. The priority households of 46% in rural areas and 28% in urban areas reflect these official estimates, with a 10% provision for the transient poor. Even then, the proposals have already been accepted and announced for implementation by the food ministry for distribution of foodgrains. Nor is the grain entitlement for these households any largesse of NAC—it is but a reiteration of the Supreme Court order for giving 35kg of foodgrains to the BPL population. Even the general household entitlement is the same as the existing APL household entitlement for foodgrains. Surely, the nation’s food security requires much more than just renaming categories.

However, it needs to be highlighted that these proposals are less than the existing entitlements in most states, in terms of both prices and quantity. In states such as Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Chhattisgarh, foodgrain entitlement of 35kg is available to more than the BPL population. Moreover, in most states, rice is available at Rs2/kg against the proposal of Rs3/kg. In Tamil Nadu, rice is available to the entire population at Rs1/kg. This is also true for the entitlement for general households, where the prices at which the grains will be made available is almost the same as the present prices for APL households.

At the same time, NAC has failed to take any decision on key issues surrounding the existing public distribution system (PDS). It has ignored the issue of household versus individual entitlement, and has failed to incorporate the existing orders of the Supreme Court on child and maternal entitlement, and old-age pension as part of the Act. It has also postponed the issue of PDS reform, a crucial element of the delivery mechanism of these proposals.

Clearly, these proposals are nothing more than an unsophisticated window dressing for the existing PDS. It is not obvious what led NAC to work out a proposal that reduces entitlements, leaves prices unchanged, ignores the crucial issue of PDS reform and creates one more layer of targeting. However, what is obvious is that NAC has surely missed the opportunity to create a vision for food security for the country. The fact that this has happened in the backdrop of a gigantic food stock rotting in the open only adds to the mystery.

Himanshu is an assistant professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University and a visiting fellow at Centre de Sciences Humaines, New Delhi.

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