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Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint
Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint

Why Kerala may find implementation of food security Act a Herculean task

Over 700,000 people have already complained about being left out of the list of beneficiaries eligible for subsidized food, says Kerala's food minister P. Thilothaman

Bengaluru: Kerala officially adopted the National Food Security Act (NFSA) on 1 November, but its implementation won’t be easy.

Complaints are already pouring in from across the state over the draft list of beneficiaries eligible for subsidized food that the state released towards the end of October.

So far, over 700,000 people have complained about being left out of the list, Kerala’s food minister P. Thilothaman said by phone.

The crux of the matter lies in the hurried manner in which the state restructured the beneficiary list after facing flak from the Centre for inordinate delays in implementing the NFSA.

The Central government had threatened to stop the supply of subsidized foodgrains if the state failed to enforce the Act by 1 November, forcing it to put together the draft beneficiary list sooner than it wanted, Thilothaman said.

The NFSA was passed in 2013 during the United Progressive Alliance government’s second term as part of an attempt to get rid of Below Poverty Line (BPL) and Above Poverty Line (APL) criteria, and put in place a uniform system of providing a fixed quantity of wheat or rice on a monthly basis to every beneficiary at subsidized rates.

Kerala spends an estimated Rs376.5 crore per month towards subsidizing food grains, the lion’s share (Rs331.9 crore) of which is provided by the Central government.

Before NFSA kicked in, the subsidies were provided by dividing the population into three categories—BPL, APL and Antyodaya Anna Yojana (AAY).

The implementation of NFSA meant the government had to create only two categories—a priority list and a non-priority list.

Typically, as it has been in other states, the priority list would include BPL and AAY families, and the rest would go to the non-priority class.

People’s concerns that they may be pushed out of the public distribution system (PDS) were clearly visible when some 20,000 people turned up at a village-level administrative office in Neyyattinkara near the state capital Thiruvananthapuram two weeks ago.

Their sudden arrival, after learning that the deadline set for correcting the draft beneficiary list was 30 October, created a stampede-like situation, according to a report in the newspaper Malayala Manorama on 25 October.

For context, as per government estimates, each taluk in Kerala processes about 200,000 ration cards. The government estimates at least 25% of them to have errors.

After the Neyyatinkara episode, the government has since allowed more offices to receive complaints and extended the deadline to 5 November. But the problem hardly stops at rectifying complaints.

For the NFSA, Kerala will get 1.45 million tonnes of subsidized food grains per year, which the state government says won’t be enough to meet the needs of everyone on the list.

The state claims it needs about 1.025 million tonnes of food grains to supply about half of the 33.4 million ration cardholders who fall in the ‘priority’ list itself.

That means, it will have just 425,000 tonnes to supply the rest on that list and those in the non-priority camp.

Thilothaman says the state government has “partly solved" this problem by planning to continue subsidizing food grains to everyone on the new list, despite the potential shortages.

However, according to another minister in the cabinet, who preferred not to be identified, the financial implications of this would be huge for the already cash-strapped state government.

Kerala also needs to sort out a whole host of other basic issues if it wants to successfully implement NFSA, according to former union food minister K.V. Thomas.

“At least 40% of the food grains supposed to be distributed in the state get siphoned off because of the holes in the distribution system," Thomas said. “It is heavily dependent on private storage spaces while NFSA requires states to have spaces to store foodgrains for a minimum of three months. We have not finished end-to-end computerisation. The list could go on."

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