Extending food security

October 29, 2016 01:13 am | Updated December 04, 2021 10:50 pm IST

The Centre’s coercive method has worked. Tamil Nadu and Kerala, the two States that were holding out against pressure from New Delhi to implement the National Food Security Act (NFSA), have also fallen in line. By threatening to raise the price at which it was allocating foodgrains if they did not implement the law, the Centre has managed to get these two States to agree to the implementation of the Act from November 1. If they had not done so, they would have had to pay Rs.22.54 a kg for rice for their monthly allocations under the ‘above poverty line’ (APL) category, as against the Rs.8.30 a kg they are paying now. For Tamil Nadu, it would have meant an additional expenditure of Rs.2,730 crore, over and above the Rs.2,393 crore it is spending on its universal public distribution system (PDS). The State says it will implement the Act and also continue its universal PDS coverage. In the bargain, it will have to maintain a uniform supply of 5 kg of rice per person as stipulated in the NFSA, and protect the existing entitlements of PDS beneficiaries. The resultant increase in offtake would result in additional expenditure of Rs.1,193 crore for Tamil Nadu. Kerala maintains an APL-BPL distinction in its PDS. However, its concerns over the implementation of the Act related to the possibility that many beneficiaries may be left out under the Centre’s categorisation of PDS consumers into ‘priority households’ and others.

Over the last year or so, Kerala and Tamil Nadu had been warming to the idea of joining the NFSA, but sought time to do so. They wanted to complete end-to-end computerisation of their PDS and the process of seeding Aadhaar numbers with family cards. One clear advantage of joining the national food security system now is that the computerisation and Aadhaar seeding process may result in the elimination of bogus cards and beneficiaries. Tamil Nadu’s case for such a clean-up is glaring as the number of people covered by its family cards is about 7.81 crore while the State’s population is 7.21 crore. There are lessons for both the Centre and the States in this conflict involving a zealous Central government seeking to force its idea of food security on States that believe they are already addressing the issue with the same, if not greater, level of seriousness. A national food security law may hold good for States with weak food security systems — but for the rest, it would perhaps be better if States implemented their own schemes. On the other hand, the States need to temper their zeal for ‘more than universal’ coverage with a realistic assessment and identification of beneficiaries.

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