A plate half full

The National Food Security Bill may not do much but what it does is essential

By Latha Jishnu
Published: Thursday 29 August 2013

The National Food Security Bill may not do much but what it does is essential

THERE is so much wanting in the Food Security Bill 2013 that no one is quite happy with it. The debate in the Lok Sabha on Monday 26 August reflected the myriad concerns occasioned by this hugely contested piece of legislation: opposition parties sought close to 300 amendments, all of which were defeated. But K V Thomas, Minister for Consumer Affairs, Food and Public Distribution, moved a few amendments of his own to ensure the states' food allotment quotas are not reduced under the new law.

Outside Parliament, however, reactions have been remarkably predictable. Right-wing economists as usual were shrill about the high costs of the bill –the figure in some cases were so inflated that it rebounded – and the doomsday scenario about the public distribution system. The upper classes, too, did not disappoint: they, like the media, claimed that the rupee dive-bombing and the market tanking was all on account of the additional Rs 24,000 crore expenditure the food bill would entail this year. No such connections, although direct and obvious, were made when the government handed the affluent classes and the jewellery trade a duty relief of close to Rs 66,000 crore  in 2011-12 and Rs 61,035 crore in 2012-13.

First, the economists who insist that the government is throwing good grain after bad because the PDS system is in a shambles are refusing to concede that vast improvements have been made in most states to tone up dysfunctional distribution networks. Few among these appear to have bothered to look closely at NSSO’s consumption expenditure figures for 2011-12. Leakage of food grains is down 35 per cent compared with 55 per cent in 2004-05 using the same method. The most spectacular turnaround was by Bihar which slashed it to just 12 per cent by going the same route that more savvy states had taken earlier: computerisation of PDS, use of GPS to track food movements. Politicians now know they can be blackballed if the promised foodgrains are not available or that they can be re-elected comfortably if the PDS works, as Rama Singh in Chhattisgarh discovered.

Second, more people are accessing PDS now. The NSSO figures show that 50 per cent of rural households were buying subsidised food grains in 2011-12 against just 23 per cent in 2004-05. The irony is that while the poorer states were pulling up their socks, Gujarat, whose chief minister, Narendra Modi, has been scoffing at the small helpings of cereals in the National Food Security Bill (NFSB), was administering a PDS with the highest leakage. Gujarat has by its own admission been diverting supplies from the Above Poverty Level (APL) quota to Below Poverty Level (BPL) cardholders.

This brings us to one of the sensible decisions of the UPA government. It has scrapped entirely the APL quota, where most of the leakage and corruption took place, leaving just the BPL households and a special category within this, the Antyodaya Anna Yojana households who are among the poorest of the poor. The question is: what will the Bill do? Will it ensure that none of the poor remains hungry? Will it end child malnutrition? Will it ensure food security? The answer to these questions is a clear No. And yet, it will help that little bit in reducing the desperate straits to which the poor in this country have been reduced to by indifferent and careless governments and the apathy of the rest of us.

What the Bill will do for the poor

While much space was given over to the ranting of free market votaries, one story captured the essence of what the Bill will do. It was a wrenching story of a woman (unnamed) in an unidentified village of western Uttar Pradesh, the mother of a boy accused of the gruesome December 2012 rape and murder of a paramedical student that shook the nation. The woman neither answered coherently nor cared how indifferent she appeared to her son’s fate. She was desperately hungry and in pain, according to the report. She hadn’t eaten in four days except for half a roti and chai.

As she explained, the 35 kg of cereals that her family of eight –husband is demented –gets every month under the BPL quota is exhausted in the first fortnight. She has been unable to find work to supplement the family income. Will the NFSB help this woman? Currently, according to the rates fixed by the UP government, she gets 20 kg of rice at Rs 6.15/kg and 15 kg wheat at Rs 4.65/kg, paying in all Rs 192.75 for her quota. After Parliament approves the Bill, she will get these grains at Rs 90 per month. But she will get an additional 5 kg since the proposed law stipulates 5 kg per head. If it is rice it will add just another Rs 15 to her tab or Rs 10 if it wheat. On the whole she would save around Rs 100 a month. Small beer for us but perhaps a matter of life and death for her. What’s more, millions more like her will get 5 kg of grains every month –total of 152 million compared with current 58.3 million who are now eligible in UP.

Call it a plate half full or half empty.

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