The euphoria around the National Food Security Act (NFSA), 2013, seems to have dwindled. As per the statements by Minister of State for Consumer Affairs, Food and Public Distribution, Ram Vilas Paswan, the Act was to be fully implemented across India by July 2016. As of now, only five States have fully executed it as per the provisions of the Central Act and the progress in other States has been tardy. The front runners are Punjab, Haryana, Chhattisgarh, Maharashtra and Rajasthan. The Act has been partially implemented in Bihar, Delhi, Himachal Pradesh and Karnataka. Preliminary surveys undertaken in some of these States have revealed positive outcomes in terms of administrative reforms, significant increase in the number of households having ration cards, and improvement in the distribution and consumption of food through fair price shops. A few of them had already initiated reforming the distribution system much before the Act was presented in Parliament. The Act, if fully implemented, is likely to benefit 720 million people through availability of 5 kg per capita per month of subsidised foodgrains (rice, wheat and coarse cereals) at a much lower rate than that in the open market. This would ensure food security and enhance nutritional status.
The Odisha study
The two concepts are interlinked, but nutrition security has a much wider connotation than food security. It encompasses a biological approach, that is, adequate and safe intake of protein, energy, vitamin and minerals along with proper health and social environment. The nutritional aspect of the quantity of grain to be distributed to each person under the Public Distribution System (PDS) is somewhat less researched, though the Act has aimed at attaining this goal. Poor quality of food lacking essential micronutrients and no diet diversity, and unhygienic conditions of storage may come in the way. There are other promising features under the Act, such as free daily meals for children and maternity benefits, including cash for pregnant women, which can combat rampant undernutrition (calorie deficiency) and malnutrition (protein deficiency) across the country. These steps may perhaps complement the existing nutritional programmes such as mid-day meals and Integrated Child Development Services.
We present results from a study in rural Odisha on the contribution of PDS towards households’ intake of foodgrains and the quantum of calorie and protein levels. A primary survey of 385 households was carried out during 2014-15 in three extremely poor districts viz. Koraput and Bolangir in the so-called KBK (most backward) region and Nayagarh in the non-KBK region. While KBK districts follow a universal PDS, non-KBK districts have a targeted one.
There is high prevalence of undernutrition and malnutrition in the selected districts. The estimates, adjusted on the basis of age, sex and work as recommended by the nutrient requirements and dietary allowances of Indians drawn up by the Indian Council of Medical Research-National Institute of Nutrition in 2010 reveal the undernourished population to be 50 per cent and the malnourished to be 43 per cent on an average for all the districts together. Calorie and protein deficiency is relatively higher (see graphic), nearly 68 per cent among the Antyodaya Anna Yojana (AAY) households, known to be the poorest of poor. It is much higher in Koraput district at 72 per cent, way above the State average of 60 per cent.
Rice is the key staple food in the surveyed areas and acts as a major source of energy intake. The monthly per capita consumption of rice is estimated to be 11.6 kg, of which 33.7 per cent is sourced from the PDS by all beneficiaries. Since AAY households have higher quota and accessibility under the PDS, the contribution is much more at 73.9 per cent. Cereals (wheat and rice) make up 70 per cent of the calorie intake and 66 per cent of the protein intake, though the magnitude varies across districts. More importantly, the contribution of PDS to energy intake among AAY households is double (60 per cent) that of other beneficiaries.
Better accessibility to food and hence energy intake of poor people, especially those under AAY, has been made possible due to concerted efforts initiated by the government. Major reforms initiated from 2004-05 that are worth mentioning include abolition of private procurement and storage system, and a greater role for public agencies in controlling diversion of foodgrain from the godown to the millers; proper recording of procurement, storage and distribution of grains across the departments; and distribution of food through self-help groups and gram panchayats and its regular monitoring at the block and ward levels. While revealing their satisfaction with the PDS, the beneficiaries refuted the idea of having a cash transfer system in place of the existing in-kind transfers, primarily due to fear of price hike and inadequate infrastructure i.e. roads, banks, and long distance of market from the village. In fact, the beneficiaries proposed an increase in the coverage of commodities to pulses, onion and potato under the PDS in their respective areas.
Replicating Odisha elsewhere
The efforts of the State government in ensuring food security should be replicated in States that are yet to fully implement the Act and reform their respective distribution systems. Many studies have emphasised on dietary diversification to ensure appropriate nutritional intake for large segments of the poor population. This may be an important step to be taken up in States where a revamped PDS is making ground, such as in Tamil Nadu, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Bihar. Provision has been made under the NFSA to provide one additional coarse cereal viz. millet along with wheat and rice, which can further enhance the nutritional security of the poor households. Though wheat and rice contribute significantly to energy intake, the time has come to increase our focus on coarse cereals and pulses to improvise adequate intake of protein. Serious deliberations are required to make this possible through the PDS, which is going to cater to a sizeable population in the near future. As elicited above, the AAY households have a greater access to PDS but the problem of undernourishment is more serious among them.
As a prerequisite, it is imperative to hasten implementation of the NFSA across the country. States should be in a mission mode as availability of foodgrains may not be a problem this year. The Ministry of Agriculture has projected a record production of 270 million tonnes owing to good monsoon and an increase in acreage of foodgrains from 101 million hectares to 105 million hectares. The States must gear up to work on adequate logistics for digitisation of ration cards, computerisation of offtake and delivery of foodgrains, and effective monitoring of fair price shops, possibly through involvement of communities or other feasible ways. This will bring in greater transparency in the system and would go a long way towards raising the nutritional status of Indians.
Seema Bathla is Professor and Bal Krishan Negi a Research Scholar at Centre for the Study of Regional Development, JNU, New Delhi.