Some of the concerns expressed about the food security Bill two years ago when it was passed in Parliament are in danger of coming true. A study by HT has shown that the law is yet to be implemented wholly. Just seven states have implemented its core provisions, such as each family in the ‘priority’ category getting 35kg of grain a month.
Five others have executed it partly. Though the law says it covers the whole of India and the dates when various states start implementing it shall be specified, two years is far too long for the law to not have had the desired reach and impact.
This is tragic because India has the distinction of being home to the highest number of hungry people among 129 countries monitored by the Food and Agriculture Organization.
The statistics show 15% of India’s population are malnourished, despite all the governmental concern over decades.
In this matter, Union food minister Ram Vilas Paswan has correctly said that being faithful to the law means reforming the public distribution system (PDS). Apart from production and law-making, there is an administrative aspect to food insecurity, and that is equally important.
The distribution of foodgrain under the targeted PDS is contingent on the central issue price. Involved in this are huge costs, which the Centre bears. It is this that Mr Paswan needs to reform. According to a study by the National Council of Applied Economic Research, the cost has escalated from Rs 169 per quintal in 1980-81 to Rs 1,424 in 2009-10 for wheat, and from Rs 193 per quintal to Rs 1,820 for rice in the same period. The same work also shows that ‘small offtake, diversions and exclusion errors’ by the food corporation can threaten the food security of the country.
If there are difficulties in implementation, the Centre could consider two options: Food stamps and direct income transfer. Households below a certain income level can be made entitled to them so that ‘they can buy specified food and non-food items from authorised shops’. The government will not have to burden itself with the responsibility of maintaining stocks and fair price shops, thereby saving money and achieving the task with less manpower.