At present, Centre allocates foodgrains based on 1993-94 poverty estimates

The Centre has asked the States to put a cap on the number of Below Poverty Line (BPL) beneficiaries under the Targeted Public Distribution System (TPDS) for the proposed National Food Security Bill. It also wants fresh identification of the BPL populations for now and every five years as part of TPDS reform.

At present, the Centre allocates foodgrains based on the 1993-94 poverty estimates, which are 36 per cent of BPL beneficiaries numbering 6.52 crore. The number would decline to 5.91 crore by the 2009 estimates of the Planning Commission. As against this, the BPL cards issued by the State governments number 11.03 crore.

“For the proposed law, of crucial importance is the issue of numerical ceiling for the BPL families who would be entitled to receive a certain minimum quantity of subsidised foodgrains per month,” says a note circulated by the department to the States and Union Territories. Even this number may be revised after a Task Force, set up by the Commission, comes out with its suggestions on the methodology of poverty estimation.

The note suggests a ceiling on the number of the poor who can avail themselves of foodgrains from the Central pool, and elimination of the Above Poverty Line (APL) population altogether from the PDS. Only then, it seems, will the Centre be able to fulfil the Congress’ election promise of guaranteeing 25 kg of foodgrains per BPL family at Rs. 3 a kg.

At the recent Food Ministers’ Conference, on Procurement and Price Rise, a majority of the States disagreed with the Centre’s proposal and contested the Planning Commission’s poverty estimates. On the contrary they insisted on the concept of “food for all” which means inclusive of all poor, urban and rural. This is also the demand of civil society groups and the Left parties that are pushing for universal PDS, instead of “targeting” that keeps most poor out either due to systemic failure or corruption.

Malnutrition and under-nourishment should be measured, besides entitlement and access to food security say civil society groups. The view has been endorsed among others by Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen.

Interestingly, the various options the Centre is looking at for ensuring food security is transfer of food subsidy as cash grants directly to State governments or disbursement of food subsidy in cash leaving it upon states to organise procurement of required foodgrains at their level and distribute to BPL populations as per their entitlements.

Food subsidy

The other suggestion is to transfer food subsidy directly to “identified” BPL families in cash, instead of delivery of foodgrains under TPDS in selected districts. ``The positive aspect of this suggestion is that such process would be more efficient and the money will get directly transferred to identified BPL families who will have the choice of buying directly from the market. However, this may not ensure food security to all members of the family,” says the note.

There is no clarity yet on whether the BPL and the Antyodaya Anna Yojna beneficiaries would be merged or remain separate.

The Food Bill exercise will also trigger reforms of the TPDS for which suggestions have been made to delineate the responsibilities of the Centre and State governments, setting up of bulk storages and district-level storage capacities, doorstep delivery of foodgrains at fair price shops, smart-card based delivery of commodities under TPDS.

Detailed discussion

At the Food Ministers Conference, several States opined that the subject required a deeper and detailed discussion at an exclusive meeting. Gujarat demanded that the draft of the proposed Bill be given to States in advance to enable them to examine it. Food Minister Sharad Pawar’s home state Maharashtra opposed a ceiling on BPL list and transfer of food subsidy to the state. It also said that transfer of food subsidy in cash to identified BPL families would not serve the purpose.

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