Notified in September 2013 during the last leg of the UPA-II’s tenure, the National Food Security Act (NFSA) of 2013 has now been existence for more than 30 months. Although it kick started with 11 states/UTs (Bihar, Chandigarh, Chhattisgarh Delhi, Haryana, HP, Karnataka, MP, Maharashtra, Rajasthan and Punjab) its progress has been slow and tardy. It is only after repeated extensions of the deadlines imposed by the Government of India that additional states have come on board, and that too partially. For example, in Orissa, only half the districts will be initially covered in Phase I. Interestingly, Gujarat, the Prime Minister’s own state remains ‘offline’ and will be one of the last to join up – along with large and important states such as Uttar Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu, and Kerala. We need to understand that the reluctance to implement the Act is not merely a bureaucratic failure, but has to do with the approach of the BJP-led NDA government to the NFSA.
We have already noted and criticized the inherent weaknesses of the NFSA at the time it was being debated and subsequently passed in Parliament. The biggest flaw is that it remains grid locked in the framework of targeting – stipulating that 75% of the rural and 50% of the urban population would be covered by the Act. To make matters worse, the erstwhile Planning Commission even decided on the state-wise proportions. For example, in the state of Kerala, while 47.7% of its population resides in urban areas, the proportion covered under the NFSA is only 39.5%, when it is well known that a large percentage of the urban poor who are in need of food security. Instead of a universal Public Distribution System, only 46.37% of the population will now be covered under the NFSA. Similarly another highly urbanized state, Tamil Nadu has been given an urban coverage of 37.7% and rural coverage of 62.55%, whereas the State government has been implementing a universal and free scheme of supply of rice for several years. The TPDS Control Order issued on of 20th March 2015 clearly states that the total number of eligible households “shall not exceed the ceilings prescribed” (in the order). Further, the allocation of subsidized foodgrains from the Central government has been fixed till the population data of the 2021 Census becomes available. In effect, the Order has frozen the number of beneficiaries for the next 10 years, so how can the Act be expected to meet the food security needs of a growing population?
Hampered by these artificially imposed limits, state governments that are vested with the responsibility of implementing the NFSA have been struggling to identify the so called “Priority” households and are using all kinds of methods to reduce the number of eligible beneficiaries. In Maharashtra, the state government has used a survey conducted in 2011-12, with cut-off annual income levels of Rs 44000 for rural and Rs 59000 for urban areas. Households are asked to produce income certificates, but Tehsildars have been instructed not to issue certificates with income levels below Rs 60000, ensuring automatic exclusion. In Orissa, any household with a member earning Rs 15000 as income or pension in urban areas, and Rs 10000 in rural areas is automatically excluded. In Karnataka voter IDs and electricity bills in the name are compulsory for eligibility. In Uttar Pradesh an online registration system automatically rejects forms that do not give Voter ID and mobile numbers. Biometric ration cards, linkage with Aadhaar, on-line filling of forms, and the emphasis on technological (‘Digital’) solutions is creating huge hardships for the poor who have neither access to computers nor the technological competence to use these systems. In fact they become a source of huge exclusion and subsequent savings in subsidy. Further, by keeping people engaged in the technical process of proving eligibility, and a false hope that they will indeed benefit once they have successfully completed all the necessary formalities, the BJP government is actually derailing any possibility of mobilization against what is clearly a process of large scale exclusion from the basic and fundamental right to food.
Cuts in Programs
Apart from providing 5 kgs of grain per person at controlled prices under the PDS, the NFSA actually contains a gamut of programs. The ICDS, Mid Day Meal Scheme and the Maternity Benefit Programs are all covered under the NFSA. However if one sees the measures that have been put in place in the last 15 months, the direction of the Modi government becomes quite clear. For one, the budgetary allocations to the ICDS were cut drastically, prompting even the Women and Child Development Minister Maneka Gandhi to publicly rebuke her own government and point out that it would be impossible to tackle the problem of malnutrition. The Mid Day Meal Rules that were notified in September 2015 provide for a free hot cooked meal in every school. But on the other hand, the rising costs of essentials, especially pulses and cooking fuels have thrown its fragile economics out of gear, with adverse impact on quality. Already there is widespread privatization taking place with the program being handed over to ISKCON and other NGOs. And there is absolutely no sign of any scheme to provide the promised Rs 6000 per year to all pregnant and lactating women as Maternity Benefit that was promised in the NFSA.
As far as the TPDS is concerned, the trajectory of the Modi government is apparent from the other various orders it has notified in the last few months. The Food Security Assistance to State Government Rules (issued on 17 August 2015) are meant to specify the norms and pattern of Central assistance to the states for intrastate movement and handling of grains, and the margins payable to Fair Price Shop (FPS) dealers. What is to be noted is the additional margin provided for what is called “sale through point of sale device”, which is defined as a “device to be installed and operated in the FPS for identification of entitled persons and households based on Aadhaar or other authentication tools.” Already 62,680 such ‘PoS’ devices have been installed, though of course there is no information about how many are actually functional. We know that in Hyderabad the failure of biometric machines resulted in people physically destroying them and demanding a return to the conventional system.
Nevertheless, the Food and Civil Supplies Departments of various state governments are presently preoccupied with what are euphemistically called “Reforms in the Targeted Public Distribution System.” One would have thought that these pertained to ensuring that the monthly entitlements of 5 kg per person are made available in the FPS on a timely basis, that quality is maintained, and that there are vigilance mechanisms in place. On the contrary, across the country, the refrain is that there has been a huge increase in pilferage and siphoning off of grains by corrupt officials hand in glove with dealers ever since the BJP came to power. Hardly any grains are available in shops, whatever is available is highly adulterated, and everywhere ration shop owners are telling people that “PDS is now going to be wound up”.
The August 2015 Supreme Court order that Aadhar can be used for the PDS and for the distribution of foodgrains, kerosene and LPG distribution has no doubt come as a huge shot in the arm to a Government that is hell bent on pushing the Direct Benefit Transfer as part of its intensified neoliberal agenda. It is therefore no coincidence that the Cash Transfer of Food Subsidy Rules were almost immediately notified on 21st August 2015. They provide for the payment of food subsidy in cash (to be computed as 1.25 times the difference between the Minimum Support Price and the Central Issue Price) to eligible households, contingent on a digitized beneficiary data base of the beneficiaries, seeded with their bank account and Aadhar details. Already the scheme has started on a pilot basis in Chandigarh and Puducherry since September 2015. The government claims that digitization of ration cards is complete in 34 states, and that over 10 crore cards have been seeded with Aaadhar. The fundamental question is however whether all this is leading to any improvement in the delivery system and the food security of our people. As per the Food Ministry’s Annual Reports, the offtake of foodgrains nder the TPDS has actually declined from 658.46 lakh metric tonnes (mt) during 2012-13 to 598.17 lakh mt in 2013-14 and further to 365.01 lakh mt during 2014-15. Within two years of the commencement of the NFSA, there has been a 45% decline in offtake, which corroborates the everyday experience that nothing is available in the ration shops. Predictably, targeting is leading to further food insecurity. The solution is equally obvious – a universal Public Distribution System offering all essential commodities at controlled prices.