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FOOD SECURITY, NFSA AND DELAY IN IMPLEMENTATION

FOOD SECURITY, NFSA AND DELAY IN IMPLEMENTATION

  • Condition related to the supply of food, and individuals’ access to it.
  • Exists “when all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life”.

NATIONAL FOOD SECURITY ACT

In September 2013, Parliament passed the Food Security Act that gave legal entitlement to highly subsidised food grain to two-thirds of the country’s population. The ordinance was, however, issued in July 2013.

  • The Act aims to provide subsidised food grains to over one billion Indians.
  • It also legally entitles beneficiaries of the Midday Meal Scheme, the Integrated Child Development Services scheme and the Public Distribution System, to food.

Important Provisions:

  • 75% of rural population and 50% of the urban population are entitled for three years from enactment to 5 kilograms (11 lb) food grains per month at3 , 2 , 1  per kg for rice, wheat and coarse grains (millet), respectively.
  • The states are responsible for determining eligibility criteria.
  • Pregnant women and lactating mothers are entitled to a nutritious “take home ration” of 600 Calories and a maternity benefit of at least Rs 6,000 for six months;
  • Children 6 months to 14 years of age are to receive free hot meals or “take home rations”;
  • The central government will provide funds to states in case of short supplies of food grains;
  • The current food grain allocation of the states will be protected by the central government for at least six months;
  • The state government will provide a food security allowance to the beneficiaries in case of non-supply of food grains;
  • The Public Distribution System is to be reformed;
  • The eldest woman in the household, 18 years or above, is the head of the household for the issuance of the ration card;
  • There will be state- and district-level redress mechanisms.
  • State Food Commissions will be formed for implementation and monitoring of the provisions of the Act.
  • The poorest who are covered under the Antodaya yojna will remain entitled to the 35 kilograms (77 lb) of grains allotted to them under the mentioned scheme.

 

“The Food Security Act came into force on July 5, 2013. As per the law, state governments were to implement the law within 365 days (by July 4, 2014). Twenty states and five Union Territories have not implemented the food law so far. So the Central Govt. has decided to extend the deadline by three months.”

Step towards food security

This is unfortunate because the nutrition situation in India remains critical. Very few countries if any, had higher levels of child undernourishment in 2005-6, the last time India collected reliable nutrition statistics at the national level (under the third National Family Health Survey). What happened since then is hard to tell.

Some surveys, including a government-sponsored UNICEF survey, suggest significant improvement. Others, notably the second India Human Development Survey, point to very limited progress. This statistical fog, largely due to the failure of the fourth National Family Health Survey, does not help matters. What is clear is that even if substantial progress took place since 2005-6, undernutrition levels in India remain higher than almost anywhere else in the world.

It is no one’s claim that the NFSA is an adequate answer to this problem. The Act has serious flaws, and leaves out some important requirements of good nutrition (e.g. sanitation). Still, effective implementation of NFSA would make an important contribution to food security and improved nutrition. Recent experience shows that a well-functioning PDS makes a big difference to people who live on the margin of subsistence. The Act is also an opportunity to strengthen valuable child nutrition programmes such as school meals and the Integrated Child Development Services.

Central and State governments are jointly responsible for the tardy implementation of the Act. In some respects, the blame clearly lies with the Central government. For instance, ever since July 2013, all Indian women have been entitled to maternity benefits of Rs.6,000 per month under NFSA. It is the Central government’s responsibility to design a scheme for this purpose and to fund it. Yet, this critical provision of the Act does not seem to figure in discussions of the forthcoming Budget.

A new PDS

In other respects, the State governments also have much to answer for. This applies in particular to food entitlements under the PDS. The Act provides for the PDS to cover 75 per cent of the rural population and 50 per cent of the urban population at the national level — the corresponding ratios are higher in the poorer States and lower in better-off States. Every eligible household is entitled to 5 kg of foodgrain per person per month at a nominal price (Rs.3, Rs.2 and Rs.1 per kg for rice, wheat and millets respectively). This would mean that the PDS takes care of about half of the foodgrain consumption of eligible households.

This “new PDS” does not require any increase in public procurement of foodgrains, beyond the levels achieved in recent years. It is mainly a restructuring of the system, with broader coverage, lower issue prices and clear entitlements. Recent experience shows that these steps, along with bold PDS reforms, can lead to drastic improvements in the system. This experience is not confined to leader States like Tamil Nadu or Chhattisgarh, but now extends to some lame-duck States as well, e.g. Odisha. Even Bihar, one of the worst-governed States, has achieved remarkable PDS improvements in recent years.

The NFSA is an opportunity to consolidate these achievements and extend them across the country. The main stumbling block is the identification of eligible households. When the Act was being drafted, it was assumed that the identification process would be based on the Socio Economic and Caste Census (SECC). The idea was to use simple and transparent “exclusion criteria” (e.g. having a permanent government job or owning a motorised vehicle) to weed out relatively well-off households — everyone else would be eligible. SECC is the best available database for this purpose.

NFA

Now again the deadline has been extended because

  • States have not yet identified beneficiaries– According to sources, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand, Rajasthan, Maharashtra and Odisha, togetherhome to more than half of the scheme’s target population, have not yet put the list of beneficiaries online although some of these states claim the NFSA is already under implementation.
  • Lack of preparedness in 25 States/ Union Territories for implementing the Act– are still grappling with end-to-end computerisation of the entire PDSdelivery system, a prerequisite for rolling out the scheme.

As per Section 42 of the NFSA Act,

“if any difficulty arises in giving effect to the provisions of this Act, the Central government may, by order, published in the Official Gazette, make such provisions, not inconsistent with the provisions of this Act, as appear to it to be necessary or expedient for removing the difficulty.”

SECC

The agencies involved in the SECC — the Ministry of Rural Development (MoRD), the Electronics Corporation of India Limited (ECIL), the nodal agency to provide enumeration devices and data entry operators, and state officialsblame one another for the delays.

 

For the Socio-Economic Caste Census survey, proposed as the basis of the identification process, enumerators used scanned images of handwritten data from the National Population Register (NPR) to verify household members’ basic details. They were accompanied by data entry operators (DEOs) who entered the responses into a tablet computer.

Initially, the plan was to collect data and digitise it later. A year on, it was decided that scans of handwritten documents would create confusion when displayed as these may not be legible. We decided to digitise the NPR data before displaying the drafts lists in villages, which took time.

The SECC saga

Alas, the release of SECC data has been excruciatingly slow. According to the official SECC website, a “draft list” has been released for about three fourths of India’s districts. However, data are missing for at least some districts in half of India’s major States. Where a draft list has been released, a “final list” is supposed to be prepared after giving every household an opportunity to appeal for corrections — this could take a long time. Meanwhile, for better or worse, some States have gone ahead and issued ration cards based on the draft SECC list.

Aside from the delay, there are other shortcomings in the SECC process. Even in districts for which data have been released, the draft list has important gaps. Also, it is displayed in an odd format (pdf) that does not lend itself to computer searches or tabulations. This is an embarrassing muddle, considering that the Central government spent some Rs.5,000 crore on this exercise.

In the absence of SECC data, some States have resorted to shortcuts such as expanding the old “BPL list”, instead of preparing a new list of eligible households. These shortcuts tend to be fraught with problems. The BPL lists, often as old as 2002 or even 1997, are highly unreliable.

 

In some States, a well-defined BPL list does not even exist — there are different lists in different places (e.g. on the net, at the district level, and at the gram panchayat level), inconsistent with each other.

 

The SECC approach is an opportunity to clean this mess and prepare a single, transparent, logical, digitised list of eligible households.

Case Study

Bihar’s recent experience shows the benefits of using SECC data to identify eligible households, based on the exclusion approach. The outdated, elusive and often arbitrary BPL list has been replaced with a far more reliable list, transparently linked to SECC data that are available online. Since the SECC’s household listing corresponds to the 2011 population census, the coverage of SECC data is close to universal. There are, of course, inaccuracies in the SECC data, but judging from a recent survey of 1,000 households in four districts of Bihar, the errors are rarely such as to exclude a household that would otherwise be eligible under NFSA. The main shortcoming of the Bihar process, as things stand, is that the list of eligible households is yet to be placed in the public domain.

 

According to Jean Dreze

  • the delay in release of socioeconomic caste Census data to various States had initially posed a challenge in identifying beneficiary households under the NFSA.—“The Act itself has no provision on how beneficiaries would be identified. But now that most States have received the SECC data, there is no reason why they should continue to put off its implementation.
  • The Centre was trying to impose certain conditions for implementation, which were not legitimate, such as end-to-end computerisation, in which details of beneficiary households were digitised, complete with information of beneficiary aadhaar numbers etc., which was adding to the delays.
  • The outgo towards the ambitious schemeunder the Act is Rs 1.31 lakh crore. The huge amount is supposed to be one of the reasons why the Centre has been dragging its feet in pushing the rollout.

 

But the Government says thatà

“Given that leakages in the public distribution system range from 40% to 50%, and in some states go as high as 60 to 70%, the government should defer implementation of NFSA in states

  • Those have not done end-to-end computerisation.
  • Those have not put thelist of beneficiaries online for anyone to verify.
  • Those have not set upvigilance committees to check pilferage from PDS.

Delays mean legitimate beneficiaries are denied the NFSA benefits.

Many other States, however, are unable or unwilling to follow this lead due to delays or gaps in the SECC data.

  • Rajasthan, the first State to implement NFSA, made a mess by relying on an extension of the BPL list to identify eligible households.
  • Jharkhand, lagging behind in these matters, has not moved beyond a series of vacuous announcements.
  • Odisha, frustrated with the delays, embarked on an entirely separate identification process based on self-declaration — a very risky venture.

With the SECC far from complete, a few States have proposed their own criteria, which may be less robust and transparent than the SECC.

EXAMPLE:   The eight exclusion criteria of Odisha covers (only in Odisha due to delay in SECC)

  • monthly income,
  • income tax payee,
  • persons having four wheelers or two three wheelers,
  • business with TIN (tax payer identification numer),
  • electric consumption above 300 units,
  • any state government or central government employee,
  • persons having tractors, power-tillers, fishing boats or other heavy vehicles, persons having entrepreneurship and professional tax payees.

The exclusion will have simultaneous effect of automatic inclusion of persons like beggars, destitute, pension holder widows, particularly vulnerable tribal groups (PTGs) and persons having disabilities of 40 per cent or above.

In urban areas, beggars, rag-pickers, domestic workers, street vendors, construction workers, home-based workers and rickshaw pullers among others will be included in the process. The final beneficiary list will be prepared through mapping with the National Population Register and applying the eight exclusion criteria.

Just to add to the confusion, the recent report of the Shanta Kumar committee recommends a reduction of the coverage of NFSA from 67 per cent to 40 per cent of the population. How this is supposed to be done, halfway through the implementation of the Act, the report does not explain.

As of now, only a few states and UTs — Delhi, Chandigarh, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Punjab and Haryana — have completed the computerisation of the beneficiary list.

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