State officials are apprehensive of targeted coverage and allocations

The National Food Security Bill, which is again in news these days, may be generating much excitement in most parts of the country, but not in Tamil Nadu. The reason: a more comprehensive model in the form of universal public distribution system is in place.

Successive State governments in Tamil Nadu have held that the coverage of the PDS should be universal. Rigid targeting may only lead to exclusion of genuine Below Poverty Line (BPL) families and vulnerable Above Poverty Line (APL) families, they have said.

Tamil Nadu’s position has also been that there has been no consensus on acceptable criteria and methodology to estimate accurately BPL families.

Further, rice, as an element of political discourse, has always played a vital role in determining fortunes of political parties in elections within Tamil Nadu and elsewhere too.

In the present context of the Food Security Bill becoming a law, policymakers here are uncertain about what benefits the proposed law will bring to the State’s population.

Though Union Minister for Food and Public Distribution K.V. Thomas is said to have assured the State officials that the present allotment of rice for Tamil Nadu will be protected, the latter are not sure how long the existing allotment will be retained. The existing allotment falls short of the monthly requirement by 20,000 tonnes. The Centre’s monthly allotment is 2.96 lakh tonnes whereas the State requires at least 3.16 lakh tonnes. The gap of 20,000 tonnes is met through purchase under the Open Market Sales Scheme of the Food Corporation of India and special allotments from the Centre.

The officials here have their own reasons to be apprehensive about the continuance of the present allotment as they refer to the Centre’s “sudden withdrawal” of levy obligation for sugar mills to contribute sugar to the PDS. Apart from exposing the supply of PDS sugar to the vagaries of the market, the decision to withdraw levy obligation has eventually resulted in the reduction of Central subsidy for the sugar supply.

As the State government, after assumption of office by the All-India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam in May 2011, is providing rice free of cost, the authorities here are particular that there should be no hurdles. At a time when the State is undergoing a drought, the dependence of people on PDS has become higher as evident in the offtake of rice across the State. While, on an average, 82 per cent of the monthly allocation of rice is being used by rice card holders, some districts including Nagapattinam and Dharmapuri have reported 90 to 95 per cent of the utilisation of their respective allocation.

Explaining how certain features of the proposed law will adversely impact the State, the officials cite the provision of the Bill that only 50 per cent of urban population will be covered. As per the 2011 Census, nearly 50 per cent of Tamil Nadu’s population is in urban areas. The implication of the provision of the Bill is that one-fourth of the population — close to 1.8 crore — will not be eligible for food entitlements.

The officials say that when the prevalence of urban poverty is more and the State government is making everything possible to address this problem, the Bill may turn out to be severe on the State.

Another aspect of the Bill is that there is no reference to the APL. At present, the Central government’s selling price of rice to the State for this category is Rs. 8.3 per kg. The officials are clueless whether the Centre will continue with the same price, as the Bill talks of providing rice at Rs. 3 a kg to the combined population of priority households and AAY beneficiaries.

But, it is not that there is nothing in the Bill which is beneficial to Tamil Nadu. The State hopes to get about 1.05 lakh tonnes, meant for BPL families, at a rate of Rs. 3 per kg. This will be apart from the allotment for AAY at the same rate. Till now, the quantity of rice meant for BPL has been priced at Rs. 5.65 per kg.

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