Given the scale of UPA-II’s proposed food security programme, getting the recipe right was never going to be easy. But even accounting for their differences, the National Advisory Council (NAC) and the government are having more problems than expected pushing the right to food legislation.
Two NAC proposals have been rejected by the ministry for consumer affairs, food and public distribution, with the result that a fresh draft may need working on. The no-go is on the reported ground that the models are fiscally untenable and undeliverable given current procurement levels.
The first proposal envisages a pilot project in 150 poorest districts, providing 35 kg of rice or wheat at Rs 3 per kg to 80 per cent families in rural areas and 33 per cent in urban areas, while families below and above the poverty line elsewhere would be pegged to different amounts and prices. The second targets 42 per cent of BPL families in rural and 33 per cent in urban areas, while offering 25 kg of rice/wheat at subsidised prices only to rural APL families. While greater effort has been made to target groups, NAC estimates on foodgrain needs are said to be overly conservative. The subsidy load could be far bigger than calculated.
True, in its understandable attempt to cut costs, the government shouldn’t end up defeating the purpose of extending food security cover to the weaker sections. But while its idea of a selective initial launch makes sense, the NAC must factor in eventual economic viability and supply side issues. If, as is being apprehended, meeting stated food needs under the programme calls for imports, this will impact domestic farmers and overseas prices. Running a food security project with imports is hardly rational or cost-effective. Also, the lowered APL issue price as suggested might hugely raise demand. Above all, consensus is still lacking on the poverty measure, among many estimates, to be used. Food security can hardly be targeted efficiently without first defining poverty or by having multiple definitions.
More so, when the scheme’s biggest problem is PDS-dependence. Though functioning well in places like Tamil Nadu, the PDS is generally notorious for leakage and waste. Almost 65 per cent of allotted grain gets diverted to the open market. Nor do structural glitches like out-of-reach PDS outlets help the poor. Everyone knows there’s crying need for an overhaul of PDS infrastructure. At the same time, other delivery mechanisms recommend themselves. Bar-coded food coupons and smartcards as Andhra and Orissa are experimenting with or even cash transfer replacing subsidy, channelled to women heads of households, can permit access to food in all stores. Such alternatives, buttressed by UID and financial inclusion projects, can vastly reduce the socio-economic costs of inefficiency and corruption in public distribution.