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Updated: July 23, 2011 11:00 IST

‘The National Food Security Act must include strong safeguards'

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A letter to the Prime Minister on the importance of a ‘near-universal PDS.'

July 21, 2011

Dr. Manmohan Singh

Prime Minister of India

Respected Prime Minister,

We are a group of research scholars and student volunteers who have just spent three weeks surveying the Public Distribution System (PDS) around the country. We are writing to share a few thoughts on the National Food Security Act in the light of this experience.

Our survey covered more than 100 randomly-selected villages spread over nine States (Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Himachal Pradesh, Jharkhand, Orissa, Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu, and Uttar Pradesh). We inspected the local Fair Price Shops and interviewed more than a thousand “BPL” households. Oblivious of the heat or rain, we reached the country's remotest nooks and crannies and spared no effort to understand people's situations and views.

This survey points to an impressive revival of the PDS across the country. In all the sample States, with the notable exception of Bihar, there have been major initiatives in the recent past to improve the PDS and these efforts are showing results. Most of the sample households were getting the bulk if not the whole of their foodgrain entitlements under the PDS (up to 35 kg per month, at a nominal price). The days when up to half of the PDS grain was “diverted” to the open market are gone.

We also found that the PDS had become a lifeline for millions of rural households. A well-functioning PDS virtually guarantees that there is always food in the house. This is an enormous relief for people who live on the margin of subsistence, and a welcome support for everyone. It is a big step towards the end of hunger, which has blighted this country for centuries.

The bad news is that the BPL list is very defective. In many States, entire communities have been left out, and almost everywhere, there are enormous exclusion errors. This has severely reduced the effectiveness of the PDS as a tool of food security. Therefore, we support the case made recently by a group of academic economists for a “near-universal PDS,” whereby all households are entitled to food subsidies unless they meet well-defined exclusion criteria.

The said economists also believe that there is a strong (though unspecified) “theoretical case” for cash transfers as an alternative to the PDS. We discussed this proposal with the respondents, and found that a majority opposed it. The reluctance was particularly strong in areas with a well-functioning PDS, and among poorer households. Further, we felt that the reasons they gave for opposing cash transfers were generally quite thoughtful and convincing.

In most cases, the reasons pertained in one way or another to food security — an overwhelming concern for poor households. For instance, many respondents were worried that money might be misused or frittered away. Where markets are distant, they wondered where they would buy grain, and how they would cope if there is a sudden increase in local food prices. Even where markets are accessible, there were apprehensions, such as a fear that traders might raise prices if the PDS is closed. Similarly, the local bank was often said to be too far, overcrowded, or difficult to handle. Many respondents had a bitter experience of the banking system in the context of Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) wage payments. In contrast, the familiarity and convenience of the local Fair Price Shop were widely valued. It is only in areas where the PDS was not working, notably Bihar and parts of Uttar Pradesh, that we found substantial interest in cash transfers as a possible alternative.

Accordingly, we urge you to ensure that the National Food Security Act includes the strongest possible safeguards against a hasty transition from food entitlements to cash transfers.

We do recognise, of course, that there is enormous scope — and urgent need — for further improvements in the PDS. We have some suggestions on this too, and would be glad to discuss them with you at your convenience.

Yours sincerely,

Signatories: Anindita Adhikari (independent researcher, Patna); Ankita Aggarwal (independent researcher, Delhi); Megha Bahl (Delhi School of Economics, Delhi); Pooja Balasubramanian (St. Xavier's College, Mumbai); Balu (Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi); B. Lakshmi (Kirori Mal College, Delhi); Manish Choudhary (Hindu College, Delhi); Sakina Dhorajiwala (Jai Hind College, Mumbai); Jean Drèze (University of Allahabad); Anchal Dutt (Law College, Delhi University); Aashish Gupta (University of Allahabad); Aparna John (independent researcher, Delhi); Purava Joshi (St. Xavier's College, Mumbai); Samyuktha Kanan (IIT, Madras); Reetika Khera (IIT, Delhi); Sirus Joseph Liberio (University of Mumbai); Radhika Lokur (St. Xavier's College, Mumbai); Aleesha Mary Joseph (St. Stephen's College, Delhi); Swathi Meenakshi (Anna University, Chennai); Karuna Muthiah (independent researcher, Dindigul); Bijayani Mohanty (independent researcher, Bhubaneshwar); Rajkishore Mishra (independent researcher, Bhubaneshwar); Kuber Nag (IIT, Madras); Sudha Narayanan (Cornell University); Soheb Niazi (Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi); Gaurav Poddar (St. Stephen's College, Delhi); Raghav Puri (Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, Singapore); Aakriti Rai (St. Xavier's College, Mumbai); Kshama Raj (University of Hyderabad); Alamu Rathinasabapathy (Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi); Sambhu Sahu (independent researcher, Bhubaneshwar); Ria Singh Sawhney (Law College, Delhi University); Trishna Senapaty (Delhi School of Economics, Delhi); Kanika Sharma (Lady Shri Ram College for Women, Delhi); Ujjainee Sharma (Delhi School of Economics, Delhi); Dipa Sinha (Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi); Neenu Suresh (Law College, Delhi University); Chitrank Upadhyay (Zakir Hussain College, Delhi); Jijo Vadukoot (University of Mumbai); Eklavya Vasudeva (Law College, Delhi University).

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A thankful workout has been done by this team. Certainly cash transfer to PDS is not going to work out any positive thing rather to invite another big scam.

from:  Er. Umesh Chandra Gond
Posted on: Jul 25, 2011 at 11:46 IST

This cash transfer policy is mainly for the benefit of again the multinational mega companies like Walmart etc who are all in retail markets.

from:  Senthil.a
Posted on: Jul 24, 2011 at 22:05 IST

Kudos to the research team.It is horrible to think of alternatives such as cash transfer to PDS in the context of widespread liquor addicticn among the weaker sectons of our country.The cash transfer plan would definitely increase the liquor consumption ratherthan food consumption and ultimately the worst sufferers would be the women and children of weaker secction.

from:  Dr. G. Vijayaram.
Posted on: Jul 23, 2011 at 10:47 IST

I congratulate and applaud the team of researchers for the great service they did for the cause of the poor, the voiceless. There should be more such work in various areas of India's socio-economy. India is known as world's largest democracy, but practically it has the largest number of poor as per UN report, other studies etc. It is now also the fourth most dangerous country for women by a London based organisation's study. All these negative features of Indian socio-economy could be rectified through appropriate and feasible provisions that are not difficult. Social researchers should bring out what measures are urgently needed in poverty alleviation, housing, water supply, sanitation, education, slums clearance etc, and also follow them up with the government. Indian government instituted so many commissions, but their heavy reports are simply collecting dust in many offices.

from:  Abraham Karammel
Posted on: Jul 23, 2011 at 02:08 IST

My heartiest congratulations to all the students who have taken pains in doing such a critical examination of PDS. I hope the results that have erupted out of this research will prove to be fruitful in drafting a strong food security act.

from:  Sagar Upadhyay
Posted on: Jul 22, 2011 at 18:21 IST

Direct money transfer system instead of subsidies can be done for subsidies on petroleum and other products. Food needs to be out of that circle.Subsidy for food is definitely justified.Why dont the govt. increase its capacity of food storage through Public Private Partnership.Wastage of food items for any reason is not acceptable.

from:  P.Ezhil John
Posted on: Jul 22, 2011 at 17:27 IST

Experience has shown that in our country targetted welfare programmes can not effectively work.Instead we should adopt universal welfare schemes. Everyone should be considered entitled to a resonable amount of qality foodgrain at a reasonably lower price. Rs 3/- per Kg is not a realistic proposal. Rs 6 or Rs7/ per kg seems reasonable. Entitlement should be on the universal basis- this is easy to implement and monitor as well.Then one need not to care whether vulnerable sections, destitutes, disables are getting their due or not. Cash subsidy is also not feasable and practical in present situations although a better idea than targetted public distribution system (TPDS).

from:  Ajendra Srivastava
Posted on: Jul 22, 2011 at 13:55 IST

Researcher's work is appreciable. They have done very good thing,this is the requirement of INDIAN people those are not able to bye food grains.I request to the PM MANMOHAN SINGH make a strong bill for our people.

from:  Atulesh Gupta
Posted on: Jul 22, 2011 at 11:47 IST

A great lot of applause to researchers's team for their very pertinent study and the findings! The finding that majority opposed the proposed cash transfer alternative to the PDS would work as a stitch in time and save the life of many Indians.

from:  Dr Rema S
Posted on: Jul 22, 2011 at 08:30 IST

The govt. announced in 2009 that a food security act will be passed.But the bill is yet to be passed and the debate is still continuing on its various aspects like finance,implementation etc.India has 17.5% of its land area out of 328.73 mha under agriculture to feed its 121 crore people. In the last 2 decades the per capita availability of food has declined due to rising cost of food grains.This act proposes to provide food access to 75% of the country's population (90% rural and 50% urban).It is alarming that India ranks 65 out of 84 countries ,slightly above Bangladesh in terms of hunger according to 2009 IFPRI report.About 77% of Indians are prone to hunger.About 40% of the PDS grains are wasted every year and the employment under NREGA has become 15 days with reference to food security.
We must remember that in our Indus Valley civlisation the granary at Harappa (150 X 200 ft.) proves the food grain handling ability.The urgent need of India is a second green revolution. >

from:  Saurabh Shubham
Posted on: Jul 22, 2011 at 07:52 IST
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