The UPA government’s ordinance on food security will require a massive roll-out programme by state governments, which face a challenging task of identifying the beneficiaries in time and ensuring pilferage-proof delivery.
The ordinance seeks to give a legal right to monthly food handouts to 67% of the population — about 800 million Indians — at a fraction of their market price. Rice, wheat or millets will be given at Rs 3, Rs 2 and Re 1 a month.
Although the law comes into immediate effect, Clause 10 of the ordinance provides six months' "lead time" to states to identify eligible households in a "fair and transparent" manner.
The mere mention of cheap food could send a cheer among, by one count, 200 million food-insecure Indians. The new food programme could also make food aid India’s biggest national subsidy expenditure.
It is likely to cost Rs 1.31 lakh crore annually, thereby raising the government’s spending on food aid by nearly a third or 31%, going by a current food subsidy bill of about Rs 1 lakh crore.
Currently, the government gives food aid through its public distribution system (PDS) to two categories of poor Indians: those below the poverty line (BPL) and those slightly above it, totaling 180 million households.
Under the new programme, 75% of the rural population and 50% of urban dwellers must be covered as a single category. States such as Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu and Kerala could have fewer teething problems because of their relatively robust, computerised PDS system.