The National Advisory Council's proposals on the Food Security Bill represent a bad deal for the poor.
The struggle for an effective and equitable Food Security Bill (FSB) has received a setback with the disappointing proposals put forward by the National Advisory Council. There is a disturbing disjuncture between what is being claimed and the actual implications of the proposals. Indeed it may be said that the NAC proposals create new discriminations.
The most basic requirement for a legal guarantee for food security is the replacement of the present targeted system by a universal system of public distribution. India had such a system till the advent of neo-liberal policies in the 1990s when targeting started. The NAC proposal actually expands the sphere of targeting in at least four ways.
Geographical targeting: According to the proposal, “…initial universalisation in one-fourth of the most disadvantaged districts or blocks in the first year is recommended, where every household is entitled to receive 35 kg per month of foodgrains at Rs. 3 a kg.” This will translate into around 150 districts out of 640. This proposal actually introduces a new discrimination among those who are equally poor, on the basis of where they were born and where they live. For example, an unorganised worker in the construction industry who does not possess a BPL (below poverty line) card, would in the 150 districts selected be eligible for the entitlement. But if she lives in a village outside these selected districts, even though she may be in the same economic category she will not be eligible. This is legally sanctioned discrimination based on geographical location, and can be challenged in a court of law.
Also, who will determine the list of districts? Will it mean that some States, for example Kerala, may be left out in the first year altogether as was done in the case of the National Rural Health Mission, in this case because they do not fit the definition of “most disadvantaged”? Thus the question of identification of the “most disadvantaged” may itself be discriminatory against States. The NAC is overlooking the fact that the “most disadvantaged people” often live in the “least disadvantaged districts.”
New category of socially vulnerable groups: What happens in the remaining districts? Will the “initial universalisation” be extended to them over time?
The proposal says: “In the remaining districts/blocks… there shall be a guarantee of 35 kg of foodgrains per household at Rs. 3 a kg for all socially vulnerable groups including SC/STs…” This means that unlike in the 150 districts where all households will have access, in the rest of the districts, which form the majority of rural India, it will not be universal but targeted for socially vulnerable groups. Who will be included, apart from the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes? What about the minorities and the most backward castes? Will occupation be a criterion for inclusion in the category of socially vulnerable groups? Will the 77 per cent of the workforce in the unorganised sector with a spending power of less than Rs. 20 and who are plagued by fluctuating incomes, be included? In any case, by differentiating between the 150 districts and the rest of India, by introducing the category of socially vulnerable groups, the NAC has retained the APL/BPL divide, albeit with a different name and different criteria.
Targeting out others: The proposal says that for all others (other than the category of socially vulnerable groups) the guarantee will be 25 kg “at an appropriate price.” This is the crux of the issue — lower entitlement at a higher price. In fact, the issue of differentiated allocations and higher prices for the APL sections is what the Planning Commission has been pushing for — except that the Commission has been more forthright about its aims than the NAC. In a discussion paper for the Empowered Group of Ministers looking into the food security legislation, the Commission said: “We can give the APL sections a legal entitlement [later it was specifically mentioned as 25 kg] but at a non-subsidised price. We should calibrate an APL price linked to MSP [minimum support price given to farmers for foodgrain] in such a way that the annual APL offtake is around 10 million tonnes or so. If there is excess grain availability, as at present, there can be a discount from this price to encourage a larger offtake. If not, the discount should be withdrawn.” It is precisely this utterly cynical manipulation by the Planning Commission of a popular demand to suit government requirements that the NAC wants to project as universalisation. This is unfortunate, to say the least.
Category to be excluded: The proposed law will legally exclude certain categories, the details of which are yet to be worked out. If this means the income-tax paying category, there can be no objection to it. But more details are required.
The NAC has not suggested any time-frame for implementation except for the 150 districts. The proposal says that the “differentiated entitlements… would progressively be expanded to all rural areas in the country over a reasonable period of time.” Who will define “reasonable”? It has been reported that the NAC's thinking is guided by the pattern set by the staggered implementation of the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme. This is a misplaced comparison. First, for the NREGS the Left parties had ensured that there was a fixed time-frame of five years with no switch-off clause. Equally important, the NREGS was a new work-based right that required a certain amount of experience in implementation. The PDS not only exists but the infirmities in the targeted system in different States have had a negative impact on food security rights. People all over the country are affected by food inflation and the consequent food insecurity. Thus there is no basis for any staggered implementation as far as an urgent issue such as food is concerned, more so since India has huge buffer stocks.
There is no mention of the Antyodaya category. Elimination of this category would mean 2.5 crore families being deprived of their existing entitlement of wheat at Rs. 2 a kg and having to pay Re. 1 more. This is unacceptable. In States such as West Bengal, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Orissa and Jharkhand, BPL card-holders get rice at Rs. 2 a kg, and in some States at Re. 1 a kg. These States have also expanded the numbers of the BPL population. Surely a Central Act must expand on existing entitlements and not detract from them. If the State governments implement the pricing suggested by the NAC of Rs. 3 a kg, crores of families will find that the Central Food Security Act actually increases their foodgrain costs. State governments are already facing a severe resources crunch. This will make it more difficult for them.
As far as the identification and categorisation of the urban population is concerned, it is clear that targeting is going to be the basis. Households eligible for 35 kg at Rs. 3 are to be identified on the basis of criteria developed by the Hashim Committee. Oddly, the NAC has accepted the recommendations of the Hashim Committee even before the Report has been written. Usually one would like to examine recommendations before accepting them — for which they have to be written in the first place.
The urban poor have been neglected in the proposals. There are no recommendations to give a legal backup to nutrition schemes such as Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) and midday meal programmes, nor are any other essential commodities included in the ambit of the food security system.
The NAC has compromised on the basic issue of universalisation. What it is suggesting is a differently targeted system. An opportunity to take the struggle forward into official institutions such as the NAC has been lost. The NAC should have held out in the knowledge that in any case what it is suggesting may be further whittled down.
(Brinda Karat, MP, is a member of the Polit Bureau of the Communist Party of India (Marxist).)