Uttar Pradesh could successfully adopt Food Security Bill and check leakages of food if it follows reforms of Chattisgarh model, says Development economist Jean Dreze

Under the National Food Security Bill (NFSB), Uttar Pradesh will see the maximum increase in food grain allocation, but the biggest challenge yet will be to confront vested interests, says Development economist Jean Dreze. However, if UP adopts some of the successful reforms from the Chattisgarh model of PDS, it could tackle the problem of leakages, Prof. Dreze said in an interview with The Hindu.

“In Chattisgarh, the dealers compete for licenses and if anyone is found corrupt, license is given to someone else. But in UP, there is no check and there is the monopoly of the distributor. This is a big opportunity for UP.” In Chattisgarh, PDS outlets are managed by community based organisations.

Prof. Dreze points out that wide coverage, low issue prices and clear entitlements are of great help in ensuring the effectiveness of PDS. But reforms in the PDS such as door-step delivery, separating transport and distribution, de-privatisation and computerisation of records will be crucial in UP.

UP, which has 152 million of its 199 million people covered under the NFSB, will have an increase of 30 lakh tonnes of grain allocation (from 65.90 lakh to 96.15 lakh tonnes). While each State faces its own challenges in fully adopting the Bill into the PDS, experts believe States like UP and Bihar are the biggest challenge to the success of the Bill, which will provide food grains to around 67 percent of the total population.

The issue of checking pilferage and identification of beneficiaries rank high on the list of concerns. A recent research paper, which aimed at evaluating the consistency between the actual distribution of ration cards and the corresponding lists maintained by the local administration in a gram-panchayat in Allahabad, concluded that mismatch between various lists caused “exclusion” and “inclusion” errors. This meant that some of the actual beneficiaries missed out while those not entitled got the food grains.

This can be checked by bringing in a single list, based on the socio-economic and caste census, and it should be uploaded online and updated, Prof. Dreze says, while pointing out that much of the pilferage was done in the now defunct APL (Above Poverty Line) category.

The paper also pointed out that due to low commissions, dealers would siphon off grains to the open market to make up their costs. “Incentives should be provided to the dealers so that they function without cheating,” Prof. Dreze says.

Identifying beneficiaries may take longer than a year.

Even as he opines that the socio-economic and caste census is the best way of identifying beneficiaries, in UP, the process seems to be a fight against time. UP Food and Civil Supply Commissioner Archana Agarwal says the process of getting the lists prepared will take “at least a year and how much more after that is anyone's guess.” Only the initial census of the first batch of 40 districts will be ready in the next 2-3 months, she says. In case of a delay, Prof. Dreze suggests more time should be given to the State or another method used. Though the per capita approach of the NFSB was logical, making the transition in UP would be difficult, he adds.

Transportation cost

The issue of transportation costs for PDS, which will be roughly Rs. 900 crore annually, will be a problem for UP in the initial phase, says Prof. Dreze.

“So far, UP has been passing the buck to the Centre. But in the NFSB, there is no minimum norm and it is at the discretion of the Centre how much of the transportation cost it bears. This will be a problem initially.”

Samajwadi Party supremo Mulayam Singh could have been more vocal on this point while debating the NFSB in the Lok Sabha, he adds.

Ms. Agarwal admits that the uncertainty over the transportation costs (Section 22 of the NFSB) was a gray area. “There is no norm what percentage of transport costs will be incurred by the State and the Centre.”

On the ruling Samajwadi Party terming the NFSB as anti-farmer, Prof. Dreze says, “They call it anti-farmer but haven't explained why.”

Citing the political debate the Bill has triggered at the national level, he says the implementation of the Bill will benefit if it gains similar focus of political parties in the State.

Asked if the NFSB could fail, he says there's not much to lose. “It’s an opportunity. With the level of hunger in the country, there are no grounds for complacency. It will give them (farmers) some form of support, in case of crop failure or illness. Protect people from hunger.”

General limitations of NFSB

On the general limitations of the NFSB, Prof. Dreze says children entitlements in the Bill are limited as against the Supreme Court orders. While the grievance redressal system is better than that in MNREGA, it still falls short, he says.

Ideally, it should be at the panchayat level, he says.

Prof. Dreze hopes that the Bill's “discriminatory” norm against women with more than two children will be removed soon. While he believes there is a danger of over-centralization in the Bill, he sees hope in a provision that says that rules will be framed in consultation with states.