Second Look FOOD BILL No Free Lunch NEHA BHARTI Will the Food Security Bill improve the abysmal living conditions of the poor, or is it just another electoral gimmick? I N an attempt to revitalise its image, the corruption-tainted United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government at the centre is hopeful of placing the much-awaited National Food Security Bill before Parliament’s winter session. With an eye on the next Lok Sabha elections, the government is relying heavily on the passage of the bill and is probably keeping its fingers crossed – hoping to overcome the rift between the government and the public. GENESIS India is a signatory to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (1966), which recognise the right to adequate food for all the citizens. Moreover, the Indian Constitution, through the Directive Principles of State Policy, expects the state to raise the level of nutrition and standard of living of its people, and improve public health. In 1996, in Chameli Singh vs State of Uttar Pradesh, the Supreme Court declared that the right to live guaranteed in any civilised society implies the right to food, among the other rights. In 2001, the People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) filed a writ petition contending that the right to food was a part of the Fun24 MANAGEMENT COMPASSDECEMBER 2012 damental Right to Life provided in Article 21 of the Constitution. As part of the ongoing litigation in the case, the Court has also issued several interim orders. In 2001, the Court ordered the implementation of eight centrally-sponsored schemes as legal entitlements. These include the Public Distribution System (PDS), Antyodaya Anna Yojana (AAY), Mid-Day Meal Scheme, and Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS), among others. In 2008, the Court ordered that Below Poverty Line (BPL) families be entitled to 35 kg of foodgrains per month at subsidised prices. In light of these developments, in October 2010, the National Advisory Council (NAC) drafted a National Food Security Bill, proposing legal entitlements for food for about 75% of the population. In January 2011, an expert committee, set up by the prime minister under the chairmanship of Dr C Rangarajan examined the bill and made several recommendations, including reducing the proportion of the population entitled to the benefits and computerisation of PDS. A draft bill was circulated by the Ministry of Food, Consumer Affairs and Public Distribution for public feedback in September 2011. The current bill was introduced in Parliament in December 2011. PROVISIONS The bill proposes foodgrain entitlements for up to 75% of the rural and up to 50% of the urban population. Of these, at least 46% of the rural and 28% of the urban population will be desig- FOOD BILL Second nated as priority households. The rest will be designated as general households. While priority households will be entitled to seven kilograms of subsidised foodgrains per person per month, general households will be entitled to at least three kilograms of subsidised foodgrains. The task to determine the percentage of people in each state that will belong to the priority and general groups rests with the central government. However, before the approval of the central government, state governments will primarily identify households that belong to these groups. Considering that the bill classifies the population into three categories - priority, general, and other groups, any scheme that separates the population into categories requires the identification and classification of actual beneficiaries. However, targeting mechanisms have been prone to large inclusion and exclusion errors. In 2009, an expert group estimated that about 61% of the eligible population was excluded from the BPL list while 25% of non-poor households were included in the BPL list. In the light of such controversies, it is unclear how the problem of inclusion and exclusion errors will be addressed under the bill. Experts believe that a scheme that provides universal coverage would certainly be prone to such errors and would involve significantly higher costs. Schedule III of the bill proposes meal entitlements to specific groups which include pregnant women and lactating mothers, children between the ages of six months and 14 years, malnourished children, disaster affected persons, and destitute, homeless, and starving persons. However, experts differ on whether such goals will directly be related to food security. Furthermore, it is unclear why these specific groups have been included in the bill - Though it provides similar definitions for starv- ing and destitute persons, the entitlements to the two groups differ. As the bill intends to cover a large chunk of the people of India under its ambit, the system should be designed to deal with the logistical issues that will definitely come along. To counter this, some provisions have been included in the bill to carry out much needed reforms in the Targeted Public Distribution System (TPDS). Moreover, special mechanisms are also proposed to be set up at the district, state, and central levels for grievance redressal. According to the mechanism of redressing the grievances which consists of District Grievance Redressal Officers (DGROs), State Food Commissions, and a National Food Commission, the bill aims to establish a parallel framework to the one provided by the right of citizens for the time-bound delivery of goods and services and redressal of their grievances bill, 2011, (Citizens’ Charter Bill) which is pending in Parliament. However, several entitlements and the grievance redressal structure would require state legislatures to make adequate budgetary allocations. Implementation of the Look bill may also be affected if states do not pass requisite allocations in their budgets or do not possess adequate funds. Moreover the citizens’ charter bill requires every public authority to appoint grievance redressal officers at the local, state, and central levels, and create state and central public grievance redressal commissions. Under this bill, persons may complain to DGROs in matters relating to the distribution of entitled foodgrains or meals. It is unclear if a complaint may be made related to the exclusion of deserving households from the priority or general groups. DEBATE The bill entitles destitute persons to one free meal per day. It also entitles DECEMBER 2012MANAGEMENT COMPASS 25 Second Look FOOD BILL persons suffering from starvation to two free meals per day for six months. Going by the definition of destitute person - which includes those vulnerable to live with starvation or die of starvation - it is unclear why the bill makes a separate provision for persons living in starvation or conditions akin to starvation. The bill also lacks clarity on the points like why the entitlements provided to these two groups differ. Experts have also asked as to how the persons identified as starving will be treated after six months. Also, there are no provisions to identify destitute and homeless persons. The bill also specifies that the central government, state governments, and local authorities shall strive progressively towards the objectives of providing access to safe and adequate drinking water and sanitation, healthcare, nutritional, health and educational support to adolescent girls, adequate pensions for senior citizens, persons with disability, and single women. The arguments persist why such objectives that are not directly related to food security have been included in the bill. Moreover, implementation of the bill will entail a subsidy of a whopping ` 1.12 lakh crore on the exchequer. As per provisions, using 2011 census population, the requirement of foodgrains for TPDS and other welfare schemes prescribed in the bill is estimated at 607.4 lakh tonnes. However, the stock of foodgrains available in the central pool as on 1 March 2012 was 544.3 lakh tonnes. The average annual procurement of rice and wheat during the last four years (2007-08 to 2010-11) has been about 570 lakh tonnes. An imbalance in the amount of foodgrains procured vis-à-vis the quantum needed to be distributed may create nightmares for the government. The financial also memorandum 26 MANAGEMENT COMPASSDECEMBER 2012 NATIONAL FOOD SECURITY BILL Group Entitlement Priority 7 kg foodgrains per person per month at ` 3/kg for wheat, ` 2/kg for rice, ` 1/kg for coarse grains General At least 3 kg foodgrains per person per month at 50% of minimum support price (MSP) Pregnant women & lactat- Free meals during pregnancy and six months thereing mothers after; and ` 1,000 per month for 6 months Children (6 months to 14 years) Free meal at local anganwadi (6 months to 6 years); Mid-day meal at school (6 to 14 years) Malnourished children Free meals Destitute persons One free meal per day Homeless persons Affordable meals at community kitchens Starving persons Two free meals per day for 6 months Emergency & disasteraffected persons Two free meals per day for 3 months specifies 26 items of expenditure, but provides an estimate only for buffer stocks, food subsidy, and maternity benefits. The total annual estimate for these three items is a whopping ` 1.12 lakh crore. However, this may not reflect the total cost of implementing the provisions of the bill. Some experts have made estimates of the total cost, ranging from ` 2 lakh crore to ` 3.5 lakh crore. Meanwhile the bill specifies entitlements to be provided by states. It also prescribes a specific administrative structure. In certain cases, costs will be shared between the centre and states. Costs imposed on states (partial or full) include nutritional support to pregnant women and lactating mothers, mid-day meals, anganwadi infrastructure, meals for children suffering from malnutrition, meals for persons living in starvation, transport, and delivery of foodgrains, creating and maintaining storage facilities, and costs associated with DGROs and state food commissions. This implies that state legislatures may be required to allocate funds to meet the provisions of the bill in their annual budgets. If so, this may restrict their flexibility to allocate re- sources according to their own priorities. On the other hand, implementation of the bill may be affected if state legislatures do not make the requisite fund allocations or do not possess adequate funds to do so. A similar issue has been addressed in the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act, 2009 (RTE Act). Unlike the RTE Act, the bill does not mention what shall be done in case a state does not have enough funds to implement the provisions of the bill. There is also some opposition to the bill on the grounds that it legalises the PDS even though there are large instances of the inefficiency of the system. Some economists contend that in addition to reforming the PDS, other alternate models of subsidy delivery should be examined such as direct cash transfers or food stamps. The system of direct cash transfer through food coupons was also outlined in the Economic Survey of 2009-10. It stated that such a system would make the scheme less prone to corruption by cutting down government’s involvement in procuring, storing, and distributing food grains.
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