Dhobargram is a small Santhal village in Bankura district of West Bengal, with 100 households or so. Most of them are poor, or even very poor, by any plausible standard. There are also some relatively well-off households — they are not rich, but they have things like concrete houses and motorcycles, often thanks to a permanent job in the public sector. Should this small minority of better-off households be excluded from the Public Distribution System (PDS)? Including them costs public money, and they are not at risk of undernourishment. On the other hand, weeding them out is a major headache, as West Bengal and neighbouring states are discovering in the course of implementing the National Food Security Act (NFSA). Also, excluding them creates a small but powerful group of disgruntled people who may be tempted to sabotage the PDS in one way or another. When they are included, there is greater pressure on the system to work.
This is just one village (selected at random), but Dhobargram illustrates the major gains that are possible if the NFSA is well implemented in the poorer States. These gains are amplified by PDS reforms, a mandatory adjunct of the Act. The PDS in West Bengal has been one of the worst in the country for a long time. Today, it is undergoing reforms similar to those that have been so successful in Chhattisgarh and were also adopted with good effect by neighbouring States such as Odisha and Madhya Pradesh. Hopefully, they will work in West Bengal too.
None of this is to say that all is well in West Bengal, or even just in Dhobargram. Some poor households in Dhobargram are off the list of ration cards, possibly because the SECC missed them, or because they were formed after 2011, or for some other reason. There are many cases of ration cards with missing household members (this matters since PDS entitlements are defined in per capita terms under the NFSA). Also, the new list of ration cards includes fewer Antyodaya households than the old list, a problem that has also emerged in other States. It will take skilful revision of the NFSA list to resolve these problems. But at least the NFSA has created a relatively sound framework within which this can be done.
Winds of change
Judging from brief enquiries in Jharkhand and Odisha, which are also in the process of rolling out the NFSA, there are similar developments there. The biggest challenge, responsible for the delayed rollout of NFSA in many States, is to identify eligible households. Even with near-universal coverage (86 per cent in rural Jharkhand and 82 per cent in rural Odisha), this is a daunting task. Jharkhand adopted much the same approach as West Bengal: an initial list of ration cards was prepared from SECC data (by removing better-off households), and later revised based on people’s complaints. The main problem with this approach is exclusion errors: there are gaps and mistakes in the SECC data, not always corrected by the complaints process. Odisha followed a different approach, based on self-declaration: ration card applicants had to certify that they met the eligibility criteria, and local functionaries were asked to verify their declarations. The main problem here seems to be inclusion errors: well-off households often get away with claiming that they meet the criteria. The self-declaration approach also requires a reliable administrative machinery — I doubt that it would have worked in Bihar or Jharkhand.
It is too early to tell which of these approaches is preferable. There are also alternatives, such as Madhya Pradesh’s pioneering attempt to link the PDS with a database of local residents (the Samagra register) maintained by gram panchayat functionaries. And of course, one can take the view that it is simply not worth taking all this trouble to exclude 10 or 20 per cent of rural households — universalisation is best, at least in the poorer States. What is clear is that we can do much better today than in the old days of “BPL surveys”. Among other remarkable improvements is the transparency of the entire process. Even in Jharkhand, the list of NFSA ration cards is available on the Net in a reader-friendly format, with all requisite details. That makes it a lot harder to cheat — gone are the days when the village head dished out BPL cards to his or her friends without any risk of scrutiny.
The effects of PDS reforms have also started showing in the poorer States. Recent surveys in Bihar and Madhya Pradesh point to remarkable improvements in the last few years. There is no reason why the NFSA latecomers (Jharkhand, West Bengal, Assam, among others) should fail to bring about similar change. Some of them, notably Odisha, actually initiated the process of PDS reform much before rolling out the NFSA, with very positive results. The laggards have their work cut out.
The picture emerging from recent research is quite different from the impression conveyed by media reports. The latter tend to focus on abuses and irregularities: for instance, the story of a wealthy mayor in Odisha who bagged a ration card, or of someone in Jharkhand who found that 366 ration cards had “inadvertently” been printed in his name. It is certainly part of the media’s job to highlight these anomalies, but the larger picture tends to get lost in the process. There is an urgent need for careful evaluations of the impact of NFSA in different States.
Looking ahead, all eyes are on Uttar Pradesh, one of the last States to implement the NFSA. With a foodgrain allocation of 10 million tonnes or so, and a very restrictive PDS under the old system, Uttar Pradesh has more to gain from the NFSA than any other State. But it is also one of India’s worst-governed States, if not the worst. Tremendous resolve will be required to break the nexus of corrupt middlemen who have milked the PDS in Uttar Pradesh for so many years (mainly under the APL quota, which is all set to be phased out). As election time approaches, it may just happen — that would be a victory of sorts, not only for food security but also for the battle against corruption.
Finally, it is important to remember that the NFSA is not restricted to the PDS. Other critical components include maternity entitlements, brazenly ignored by the Central government ever since the Act came into force. The PDS itself need not be confined to NFSA entitlements: in several States, some households are now eligible for subsidised pulses and edible oil as well. Perhaps for the first time, there are real possibilities of ensuring a modicum of nutritional support and economic security to all vulnerable households.
(Jean Dreze is a Visiting Professor at the Department of Economics, Ranchi University.)