After months of public and internal debate, the National Advisory Council (NAC) — an organisation whose clout and significance derive from the fact that Sonia Gandhi chairs it — has put forth a set of recommendations for the National Food Security Act. The core recommendations are to provide legal entitlements to cereals for 75 per cent of India's population, that is, 90 per cent of the rural population and the poorest 50 per cent of the urban population. The entitled population is to be divided into two groups: priority and general households (the new terms for the discredited “BPL/APL” categories.) This differentiation is left to the central government; the methods of such division have, in the past, been shown to be arbitrary, unjust, and wrong. The priority group is to be entitled to 35 kg of cereals a month at low prices (Rs.3 for a kilo of rice, Rs.2 for wheat, and Re.1 for millet). The general group is to be entitled to 20 kg of cereals a month at no more than 50 per cent of the Minimum Support Price, which is to say around Rs. 5.50 to Rs.6 per kg at current prices. These proposals are new in that they offer a legal entitlement to around 75 per cent of the population (though there is a precedent in Kerala, where statutory rationing was in force for over 30 years from 1966, in that the central government was committed to ensuring adequate grain for a near-universal PDS).

The NAC has missed a historic opportunity to introduce a universal system, as demanded by all progressive sections of the polity, as recommended by the National Commission on Farmers, and as implemented by a couple of State governments. This newspaper has consistently advocated a universal PDS. Why universal? Both theory and experience demonstrate that the only way for India to ensure that no needy person is excluded from the public distribution system (PDS) is by providing universal benefits. In practice, a universal programme is one that covers all, but whose beneficiaries are self-selected. In this respect, there are lessons from Kerala (before targeting was introduced) and Tamil Nadu today. In Kerala before targeting, the PDS was universal but utilisation was progressive; according to one study, while households with monthly income of less than Rs.100 bought 71 per cent of entitlements, those with more than Rs.3,000 per month bought only 6 per cent. In Tamil Nadu today, there is an option for households voluntarily to withdraw completely or restrict their purchases to sugar and kerosene. In both these States, there has been political commitment to a universal and well-functioning PDS. There is a single — and conceptually uncomplicated — solution to the problem of mass food insecurity in India: a universal entitlement to cereals and other basic components of a food basket.

More In: Editorial | Opinion