Under the cover of endorsing a proposal for the National Food Security Bill framed by an independent group of development economists, the government is all set to empty the Bill of any substance. Provisions relating to the Public Distribution System (PDS) will be reduced to a pointless reshuffling of existing foodgrain allocations to state governments, that too in favour of the richer states. And other entitlements, relating for instance to child nutrition, will continue to be limited to what is already in place.
Under the latest plan proposed by the Food Ministry, the Bill would require little more than for the PDS to cover 67 per cent of the population across the board (in every state as well as in rural and urban areas). The remaining 33 per cent would be excluded at the discretion of state governments. This is an abominable plan for at least two reasons. First, the idea of the Bill is not to make it mandatory for the PDS to cover a certain proportion of the population. It is to create well-defined entitlements that people can claim as a matter of right. The agricultural labourer and the rickshaw puller have to know where they stand - not be left at the mercy of the state government's kindness to include them on some arbitrary PDS list. This requires specifying the exclusion criteria (if any), or making it mandatory for state governments to specify them. The exclusion criteria must be simple, transparent and very narrow, so that the bulk of the population is included, especially in the poorer states. In fact, the exclusion criteria could simply be waived in the poorer areas, where there is a particularly strong case for a universal PDS.
Second, under the Food Ministry's plan, every state - rich or poor - would get much the same per-capita allocation of foodgrains from the centre. In fact, it is worse than that. The centre would provide for 90 per cent coverage in 11 "special category" states - mainly hill states, where nutrition levels are much better than in the rest of the country. In other states, the centre would provide for 75 per cent coverage in about 250 "BRGF districts" (covered under the Backward Regions Grant Fund) and 67 per cent elsewhere. This is a pointless distinction, which serves no purpose other than to complicate matters. In practice, this abstruse formula is more or less the same as "uniform exclusion", that is, 33 per cent across the board.
Uniform exclusion is a terrific deal for the richer states. Today, the shares of different states in central foodgrain allocations under the BPL quota are based on poverty estimates, so that poorer states get more in per-capita terms. Uniform exclusion, for its part, means similar per-capita allocations for all states.The biggest gainers will be Punjab and Haryana. This makes absolutely no sense, and defeats the purpose of the Bill.
The implications of uniform exclusion have to be seen in the light of the fact that, due to the sustained increase of foodgrain procurement and distribution in recent years, central foodgrain allocations to the states are already more or less at par with the provisions of the Ministry's conservative food security bill. In other words, the Bill is being reduced to a mere reshuffling of existing allocations. Further, under uniform exclusion, the reshuffling works in favour of the richer states. But then, what purpose does the Bill serve?
There is another reason why uniform exclusion is a bad idea, especially at a high level of 33 per cent. There is a serious risk of the uniformity principle being applied down the line, to districts or even Gram Panchayats. This means that even in areas (such as the tribal areas of Central India) where the bulk of the rural population is poor and most people share a common predicament, 33 per cent will have to be excluded from the PDS. This is a recipe for chaos and conflict.
Rumour has it that some of the richer states managed to block a more equitable distribution formula. It is a little surprising that the poorer states are taking this lying down. Where are the political heavies from Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Uttar Pradesh, or for that matter West Bengal? Only the Left parties seem to have woken up to the situation.
There is a superficial similarity between the Ministry's plan and the original proposal (informally known as "Plan B"), in so far as both involve a merging of the so-called "priority" and "general" categories in the Bill. That is certainly an improvement. But this step forward is now being combined with a leap backward. The Ministry's plan, oddly enough, is also called Plan B, but it does not even deserve a C or a D - it is more like Z, for zero.
(Jean Drèze is visiting professor at the Department of Economics, Allahabad University. The views expressed are personal)