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Cumbersome food bill could crumble under own weight

business Updated: Dec 24, 2011 23:03 IST
Zia Haq

The National Food Security Bill looks unwieldy to even its staunchest supporters, such as development economist Jean Drèze and Planning Commission member Abhijit Sen. While attention has been paid to what it will cost the economy, the bill has hardly been evaluated for ease of implementation. “It’s a bad bill, frankly, from the point of view of implementation,” says Sen.

Multiple categories of beneficiaries are its biggest downside. The bill will cater to two segments of population: priority (the most needy) and general households, which are again divided between rural and urban areas. Additionally, there are sub-categories, such as lactating mothers. “You needed a simple bill which laid down its objectives and entitlements. Period,” says Sen. Drèze, too, says there’s a problematic division of population.

Secondly, the bill, while needless bulky, is also quite inflexible. No Act should bother with the exact details of its delivery mechanism, which is best left to the states. Drèze considers such excessive central control as a “serious flaw”.

The third issue is the one-size-fits-all approach. By fixing pre-determined entitlements (such as 7 kg grains per person a month), the bill presumes the same level of hunger, food requirements and poverty across the country. “In all of this, we are forgetting what any food security notion should address, which is price stabilisation,” says Sen.

Price stabilisation, therefore, is a mechanism to ensure quick transfer of food from a surplus region to a deficit region. Some regions may require more entitlements not because of poverty alone but simply because it may not be a major food-growing state, for example Jammu and Kashmir or Mizoram. “The Act does not leave much space for this,” says Sen.

Sen’s verdict: while a food security Act is very much needed, this one is certain to fail.