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A thought exercise on what near universal food security has meant for Chhattisgarh…

The proposed National Food Security Bill could change rural India even more profoundly than the National Rural Employment Guarentee Act has.

The Bill is expected to push India’s grain procurement up from the current 45 million tons to 80 million tons. It will also, depending on the approach the National Advisory Council recommends, provide 35 kg of grain at Rs 3 per kg to 14.4 crore households or 17.7 crore households. The remaining households will get 25 kg of grain at a price between Rs 5 to Rs 7.50 per kg.

These are large interventions. And so, how will they affect rural India? The greater emphasis on paddy procurement might make it a more attractive crop for farmers. Or, figuring they can always get their quota of grain for household consumption from the PDS, farmers might switch to other crops. Then, the promise of food security should diminish the fear of hunger that sits at the heart of the poor’s livelihood strategies.

In the second half of August, ET carried out a little thought exercise. Chhattisgarh has been running a near-universal food security programme for four years now. It buys almost all the paddy its farmers sell, and uses that to provide 35 kilos of grain (Rs 1 for Antyodaya families, Rs 2 for BPL families) to 36 lakh of its total 44 lakh households. And the village-level fallouts of this scheme, called the Mukhya Mantri Khadya Suraksha Yojana, have been intriguing.

The scheme, ET found during a field trip, has accelerated several ongoing trends — a move amongst farmers towards commercial farming of paddy, a change in relations between farmers and labourers in favour of the latter, a reduction in starvation deaths. On a larger scale, the government’s procurement drive has marginalised mandis. Then, the scheme is a glutton, consuming most of the government’s time and welfare budgets.

Read the complete story here.

The big question is whether similar changes could play out across the country once the Food Security BIll becomes legal reality. NAC member NC Saxena says, “A huge state subsidy keeps the Chhattisgarh programme running. It is not clear if states like UP and Bihar can afford it.” He also questions whether other states can use, as Chhattisgarh has, panchayats to run PDS stores, or if they have the political and administrative will.

Apart from that, one reason why Chhattisgarh is seeing these changes because it touches its villages through both paddy procurement and the subsidised rice scheme. It’s not clear whether the Food Security Bill will result in India broadening the number of states where from she procures her paddy and wheat. Today, just five states (Punjab, Haryana, Andhra Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh) together account for 80% of the total procurement. And there are many states, including big states like Gujarat, Karnataka and Maharashtra, where procurement operations are nearly zero.

And yet, I wonder if these changes will indeed play out, albeit to varying degrees, across the country. One set of changes where we get PDS plus procurement. Another set of changes where only PDS component of the programme is implemented.

Either way, so far, much of the debate about the Food Security Bill has centred around the quantum of grains to be provided. And on whether the programme should be targeted or universal. These other issues, of village-level impact, etc, also need to be considered.

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