Talk about food - The coming battle over beneficiaries

<b>The Sunday Story</b> The hurdles to implementating the National Food Security Bill are not monetary but identifying beneficiaries, ensuring cooperation from States and reforming the PDS

Updated - November 16, 2021 09:20 pm IST

Published - September 01, 2013 12:17 am IST

If the UPA believes it possesses one flagship that can help it sail through the electoral battle in 2014, it has to be the National Food Security Bill.

The Congress’s political messaging is certain to be built on its parenthood for a scheme that promises a nationwide legal right to food and nutrition for large numbers.

But its hope of deriving political mileage from this law would be pitted against States such as Tamil Nadu and Chhattisgarh which have long had partially or fully funded schemes that provide equal or more benefits, with clear lines of political ownership.

When the NFSB [Rajya Sabha is yet to pass it] begins to be implemented– the law gives States one year to roll it out - it is also bound to face a shrill campaign from other opposition run states that have not done so well with the targeted public distribution system so far but claim that NFSB treats them shabbily.

At the heart of this battle sits the simple question – who will be the beneficiaries that get the subsidised grains, who selects them, and on what basis?

When the Bill was still in works, the answer to this was rather simple. The government would get a new BPL census done through the states – the Socio Economic Caste Census (SECC). The census would measure people for seven basic ‘deprivations’ and give a score to individuals on the basis of where they stand on this count. The Centre would decide a cut off score, and anyone above that score across the country would be eligible for the subsidised food grains.

But then, the same thing that had got the UPA to finally push the food bill through became the biggest potential impediment against an efficient roll out – the 2014 Lok Sabha elections.

The need to keep both the fiscal subsidy, and the grains needed for the NFSB under check forced the UPA government to first impose a national level cap on the total number of beneficiaries – 75% for rural India and 50% for urban India. Then the SECC itself fell way behind schedule – it is delayed by more than two years already and another year away from completion.

The UPA then decided against using the SECC for the food bill and informed the states that they were – in a throw back to the targeted PDS era - yet again imposing state-specific cut offs based on this country-wide cap and updated State-specific poverty lines. The centre would provide subsidy for the numbers it had set and the States could choose who they wanted to give the grains to by their own criteria and design.

This could prove convenient for both the State governments and the UPA at the centre. With the last mile delivery in their hands, the State governments could show that they are giving out the largesse. The UPA government would escape blame for telling the states to put a cap on the number of beneficiaries.

"The major stumbling block for the implementation of the NFSB is going to be the identification of the poor. Ideally the SECC should have been completed way before the NFSB was passed,” said Biraj Patnaik, principal advisor to the Supreme Court food commissioner

Identifying the beneficiaries would have been a relatively simple exercise, Mr. Patnaik said, “if only the exclusion criteria were to be considered. Unfortunately the NFSB did not make this explicit and neither are the SECC results out. In the absence of this, all the states are going to use their own criteria. This is going to be disastrous in many cases."

Another fundamental and yet unresolved element of the bill which has also become a politically contentious issue is the sharing of distribution costs. This is bound to be an acute problem for poorer states that would have to expand their distribution networks - ration shops, transportation and storage.

Until the rules for the Act are formulated and the money begins to flow, states are willing to wait and watch, which raises doubts if the delivery mechanisms would be any better than the previous targetted PDS . In an election year, optics is bound to be the name of the game, not delivery.

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