'Will you prefer ration shop grains to Annashri cash assistance?' I asked Zarina and her response was a quick and resounding "No". Zarina is a recipient of Annashri's monthly cash assistance of Rs 600 - a ballpark figure of cash equivalent of the Public Distribution System (PDS) entitlement meant for the poor in Delhi. The amount is transferred to her UID-linked bank account. Zarina receives no food grains from the PDS as her ration card was cancelled long ago. Sixty-year-old divorced Zarina supports her two orphan, school-going grandchildren. Zarina's preference for cash transfers is shared by all the recipients we interacted with. The defenders of PDS have always casted doubts on cash transfer schemes as vehicles of delivering food security. Anecdotal evidence has been cited in support of this position. However, what was observed in Delhi is exactly the opposite. Is it because anecdotal evidence is seldom reliable or is it because people in different states think so differently? Could it be also because the beneficiaries of the Dilli Annashri have experienced cash transfers and the poor elsewhere have not had this opportunity? What is certain is that a few months down the road the opinions of the Annashri beneficiaries will matter a lot for the food policy discourse in the country.
Annashri is a response to the issue of exclusion of the poor in Delhi from its PDS. The PDS in the country has left out 60% of the poor from its ambit. It has certainly included the non-poor in place of the poor. But the majority of these non-poor are close to the poverty line. So, the important question is how to include the poor in the food security system rather than how to exclude the non-poor. For several practical reasons it is impossible to include most of the poor in the country without expanding the coverage of the food security system. (The upcoming food security Bill will do precisely this). States like Tamil Nadu and Chhattisgarh have responded to this problem by upgrading the PDS using their own resources. Delhi chief minister Sheila Dikshit had that option too, but she has chosen not to rely on the PDS. In the past she has expressed her concerns about the leaky PDS in her state suggesting also the near impossibility of reforming it. However, the biggest shortcoming of the Dilli Annashri is that the subsidy amount is not indexed with the inflation of food items, and devoid of indexing, Annashri cannot claim to be a food security scheme.
The central appeal of the Dilli Annashri lies in its potential to trigger a major change in food policy. It would do so by bringing in the voices of the poor directly into the debate on cash transfers. This debate has been going on for some time now, but it could not reflect the authentic views of the poor. The surveys conducted so far to assess their opinions have a major shortcoming. They expected the poor to weigh their views on the PDS against some imaginary scheme of cash transfers. But many recipients of the Annashri cash assistance have had the experience of the PDS and the remaining have seen it up close. Thus, the Delhi Annashri will soon offer the policy-makers, the opinions of those who have experienced both PDS and cash transfers.
The Delhi government plans to extend Annashri to two lakh families in the near future. The opinions of these two lakh poor women, representing their 12 lakh family members will provide an authentic political traction to the debate on food policy.
How would Sheila Dikshit respond to their opinion? The food security Bill will bring half of Delhi's population in its ambit during this election year. Will the experience of implementing Annashri persuade the chief minister to offer beneficiaries the option of cash transfers? This can happen only if the food Bill accommodates the state governments' freedom to choose the delivery mechanism for food subsidy. The Delhi government thus has big stakes in the final version of the food Bill. In the near future we can hope that Zarina's voice will impact the food policy discourse in India.
Milind Murugkar is a policy analyst with Pragati Abhiyan, a non-profit development organisationThe views expressed by the author are personal