The National Food Security Bill makes a futile and counterproductive distinction between ‘Priority' and ‘General' households, even after excluding 25 per cent of the rural population.

There is no typo in the title of this article, but the term “scorepati” is perhaps confusing. By way of explanation, let me introduce three acquaintances.

Meena, age 50, lives in a two-room kaccha hut with her disabled husband Chhote Lal who studied up to Class 2. They own half an acre of unirrigated land and a goat. Meena is unable to take up any remunerated work as Chhote Lal needs constant care. Without any specific means of subsistence, they live on one meal a day.

Zafar, age 35, never went to school but he learnt to read and write in a night school. Aside from harvesting the odd sack of grain from his small patch of land, he earns a pittance as a weaver. The family is struggling to make ends meet and two of his five children work as child labourers.

Jeetu, age 45, lives on his own — his family deserted him as he suffers from HIV/AIDS. He has been left to his own devices, in a one-room brick shed on the outskirts of the village. He is too weak to work. Compassionate villagers give him rice from time to time, with some vegetables on festival days — everyone is waiting for him to die.

‘Zero score' household

What do these people have in common? Answer: each of them belongs to a “zero score” household — a household that will get a score of zero in the Socio-Economic and Caste Census (SECC), if the Census reaches them at all.

The SECC is supposed to “rank” rural households on a scale of 0 to 7. A household's score is simply the number of “deprivations” it has from the following list of seven: (1) living in a single-room kaccha house; (2) having no adult member between the ages of 16 and 59; (3) being a female-headed household with no adult male member aged between 16 and 59; (4) having a disabled member and no able-bodied member; (5) being a Scheduled Caste or Scheduled Tribe; (6) having no literate adult above 25 years; and (7) being a landless household deriving a major part of its income from manual casual labour. None of these criteria apply in the above examples.

After ranking households in this manner, a cut-off is supposed to be applied to identify “Priority” households — the main beneficiaries of the Public Distribution System (PDS) under the proposed National Food Security Bill (NFSB). For instance, if the cut-off is two, then Priority households will consist of all households with a score of two or more. The cut-off is supposed to be specified so that the share of Priority households in the population is around 46 per cent — the proportion of the rural population below the “Tendulkar poverty line” (about Rs.25 per person per day in rural areas), with a small margin for “targeting errors.” That, at any rate, seems to be the game plan as of now.

Adivasi households

Since Meena, Zafar and Jeetu have a score of zero, they are certain to be left out from the Priority list, even before the Census begins. The good news is that they are fictional characters. But it would be easy to find real-life examples of such situations, or of other stark cases of poor — even destitute — households being left out of the Priority list because they have a zero score. In fact, even households with a score of one are almost bound to be left out, since the cut-off is unlikely to be less than two.

The odd nature of this scoring system can be appreciated in more general terms by considering Adivasi (tribal) households — the most disadvantaged section of the rural population. Since most Adivasi households possess a little bit of land, however unproductive, and a mud house with at least two rooms, the first and last “deprivations” in the list will not apply to them (note that even land possessed as a matter of traditional rights, without legal title, is to be counted as “owned” by the SECC). Further, a large majority are likely to have at least one able-bodied male adult aged between 16 and 59 years — the second, third and fourth criteria will not apply to them either. It follows that most Adivasi households will have a score of only one, unless they are “lucky” enough to have no literate adult, in which case their score will shoot up to two. But even a score of two may not catapult them into the Priority club. And if it does, Adivasi communities will be oddly split down the middle, between “score one” and “score two” families — a very divisive situation.

Support from Antyodaya

This state of affairs is all the more absurd as the distinction between “Priority” and “General” households in the NFSB is wholly unnecessary and counter-productive. As it is, the Bill calls for 25 per cent of rural households to be entirely excluded from the PDS. Now, if the proportion of excluded households is as high as 25 per cent (instead of 10 per cent as the National Advisory Council had proposed), it is absolutely pointless to split the rest into two groups. It would be much simpler and more sensible to give common minimum entitlements to all households that do not meet the exclusion criteria. This approach would reinforce, instead of undermining, the positive trend towards a more inclusive PDS in many States — Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan, Orissa, among others. Along with this, the poorest households could continue to receive special support under the Antyodaya programme, which is working reasonably well and should be consolidated — instead of being phased out as the NFSB comes into force.

This would not be the dream of a universal PDS, but it would still be relatively simple, practical and appealing. It would also resolve much of the alarming confusion that surrounds the Socio-Economic and Caste Census, NFSB, poverty lines, and related matters.

(The author is Visiting Professor at the Department of Economics, University of Allahabad.)

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