Three major elements of the United Progressive Alliance government's commitment to provide food security to the people are reforming the public distribution system (PDS), raising foodgrain productivity and production, and creating a decentralised, modern warehousing system.

Ideally, the reforms in the PDS should have come first for the availability and delivery of subsidised foodgrains to become meaningful and comprehensive. Be that as it may, the recommendation of the National Advisory Council (NAC) to launch universal PDS in one-fourth of all districts or blocks for a start should be seen as a paradigm shift towards universalisation. This move reveals that the all-powerful NAC headed by UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi has realised that the ability to deliver cheap foodgrains will be contingent on availability — availability that is home-grown, not based on imports.

In order to make a serious effort to meet the provisions of the proposed food security Bill, it is essential to enhance the production of wheat, rice, pulses, oilseeds and millets. This, in turn, needs a policy review in favour of land reforms, securing fertile agricultural land for foodgrain production rather than allowing the indiscriminate setting up of special economic zones (SEZs), mega-food parks and builders' colonies on farmers' fields.

By all indications, the 150 districts from where universal PDS would commence will be in the rural poverty-belt in Jharkhand, Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Orissa, Assam, eastern Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan. Recent events have shown that there is a certain urgency about reaching out to the poor and the marginalised people in this belt.

The rough calculation is that universalisation will begin in some 1,500 blocks (an average of 10 in each of the 150 districts) where more than 95 per cent of the population is poor. The criterion that is being worked out will exclude those who are in salaried or government jobs, are income tax payees, have a four-wheeler or own a plot or a house with a plinth area of over 500 square feet. Using these criteria, it is estimated that about five per cent of the population would be out of the scheme in these districts. This will be crucial because the identification of beneficiaries and implementation of the scheme will be done by the State governments.

It has also been decided to subsume the “poorest of the poor” — the Antyodaya Anna Yojna beneficiary families now numbering 2.5 crore of the 6.5 crore Below Poverty Line (BPL) families. The AAY beneficiaries buy PDS foodgrains at Rs.2 a kg. They will have to pay Re.1 more for grain under the universal PDS, which will provide 35 kg wheat or rice at Rs.3 a kg per family to all the identified beneficiaries, including those in the Above Poverty Line (APL) category, in the identified districts.

For the rest of the 490-odd districts where targeted PDS will continue for now, the Tendulkar Committee's poverty estimate of 8.07 core families will hold. Hence, for the APL population that is brought in or kept out of the PDS depending on grain availability, it will be status quo for the time being. The APL families will gradually (possibly over five years) be assured of a minimum of 25 kg per family at prices that will be worked out by the government. The subsidy burden will depend on the estimated offtake and the cost will be worked out by the Union Ministry of Food and Public Distribution.

Welfare measures including mid-day meal programmes, the integrated child development scheme and calamity relief programmes will continue. The inclusion of the destitute, migrants, the old, the infirm and the urban poor will be worked out after the Hashim Committee report on urban poverty is received. For now, pulses and edible oils will not be included in the food basket under the proposed National Food Security Act as the acute shortfall in the production of these commodities is met by large-scale imports.

Broadly, there will be an enhanced outgo of about 20 million tonnes on account of providing 35 kg (up from the present 12 kg) to the APL population at Rs.3 a kg in the 150 districts in addition to the BPL outgo. In a bad year, this may come from cutting APL or Open Market Sale Scheme allocations.

It is clear by now that the key to universalisation is the availability of foodgrains. For this reason, even the activists working under the banner of the Right to Food Campaign have accepted “phased” universalisation. The Food Ministry's cautious estimate is that the average annual availability for the PDS is about 43 million tonnes. The NAC seems to have gone by the Planning Commission estimate of availability of about 50 to 55 million tonnes to ensure the supply of cheap foodgrains in 150 districts besides fulfilling regular commitments of buffer and welfare schemes.

It is obvious that the UPA's seeming benevolence on the food security front is not going to be entirely without strings. The underlying principle is that the subsidy accruing from providing foodgrains at cheap rates will come from withdrawal of subsidies on petrol, diesel and, gradually, kerosene, and other unforeseen measures.

Besides ensuring minimum foodgrain entitlements at a discount, the draft of the National Food Security Act will indicate enabling clauses with regard to enhancing foodgrain production, public distribution reforms and improvement in drinking water, sanitation, health and hygiene for better intake and absorption of food by the poor.

In other words, the proposed Bill will provide for food security but call for nutrition security.

More In: Comment | Opinion