In his speech today, Finance Minister P Chidambaram suggested UPA-II has done a good job on social welfare. As statements go, that assertion is not correct. UPA-II has passed fewer laws. Implementation of the principal Acts passed by UPA-I has weakened during UPA-II. Its gamechanger, direct benefits transfer, is yet to take off. Between them, as UPA-II prepares for elections, it has little to show on the social welfare front.
The sheer sweep and scale of the National Food Security Bill — subsidised food of subsistence quantities to up to 75% of the rural population and up to 50% of the urban population—suggests it could be an election game-changer for the ruling Congress-led UPA. But when seen along with the way this legislation will be implemented, the NFSB’s pull for the Congress as a voter magnet in the 2014 elections is considerably dulled.
State governments will be in charge of implementing the NFSB, through their respective public distribution systems (PDS). The NFSB effectively sets the floor for food entitlements, but states are free to offer more. In terms of their existing food security programmes and the efficiency of their PDS, states can essentially be divided into two categories.
The first category is states that are already giving a larger food entitlement than what the Centre is promising and where the PDS is efficient: for example, Andhra Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Orissa and Himachal Pradesh. Here, the NFSB will, mostly, not be delivering new benefits to the people. The NFSB can make a difference in the second category of states, whose current food entitlements are smaller: like Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. But to do so, it will have to fix the hugely corrupt PDS in these states, a tall ask in a year.
“We will see rapid implementation of the NFSB only in those Congress-ruled states where improvements in the PDS are possible,” says Himanshu, an assistant professor at the Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, tracking agricultural change.
also see this story on how chhattisgarh’s food security programme changed the state.
The National Advisory Council, headed by Sonia Gandhi, has worked out a compromise formula for the food security act on Saturday. Keeping in mind the budgetary and the foodgrain constraints of the government the council has proposed “near universal with differential entitlements” food security programme. Under the compromised formula, 90% of the rural households and 50% of the urban households will be covered.
The NAC finalises its draft of the Food Security Bill. Also see this report on the likely village-level impact of the bill.
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.
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.
THE National Advisory Council (NAC), it appears, is set to radically rewrite the the Food Security Bill. The meeting of the NAC, which discussed the draft bill prepared by the government, was of the view that the Centre should move beyond the traditional APL-BPL faultline and aim for an inclusive Bill… The members also agreed the bill had to go beyond offering subsidised grains and offer nutritional security. In other words, it might offer varieties like jowar, bajra, ragi, etc, which would make the bill more nutritionally advantageous while also making it selfselecting — the Indian affluent stopped eating coarse cereals a while ago. Further, more affluent parts of the society, like government employees and others, could be excluded from the purview of the bill.