Posts Tagged ‘cash transfers’

Food Security in India

October 16th, 2017 No comments

The United Nations celebrates October 16 as the World Food Day every year, with an aim to spread awareness about eradicating hunger and ensuring food security for all.[1]  In this context, we examine the status of food and public distribution in India, and some challenges in ensuring food security for all.


In 2017-18, over Rs 1,50,000 crore, or 7.6% of the government’s total expenditure has been allocated for providing food subsidy under the Targeted Public Distribution System (TPDS).[2]  This allocation is made to the Department of Food and Public Distribution under the Ministry of Consumer Affairs.

Food subsidy has been the largest component of the Department’s expenditure (94% in 2017-18), and has increased six-fold over the past 10 years.  This subsidy is used for the implementation of the National Food Security Act, 2013 (NFSA), which provides subsidised food grains (wheat and rice) to 80 crore people in the country.[3]  The NFSA seeks to ensure improved nutritional intake for people in the country.3

One of the reasons for the six-fold increase in food subsidy is the non-revision of the price at which food grains are given to beneficiaries since 2002.[4]  For example, rice is given to families under the Antyodaya Anna Yojana at Rs 3/Kg since 2002, while the cost of providing this has increased from Rs 11/Kg in 2001-02 to Rs 33/Kg in 2017-18.

Provision of food subsidyTable 1

TPDS provides food security to people below the poverty line.  Over the years, the expenditure on food subsidy has increased, while the ratio of people below poverty line has reduced.  A similar trend can also be seen in the proportion of undernourished persons in India, which reduced from 24% in 1990 to 15% in 2014 (see Table 1).  These trends may indicate that the share of people needing subsidised food has declined.

Nutritional balance:  The NFSA guarantees food grains i.e. wheat and rice to beneficiaries, to ensure nutritious food intake.3  Over the last two decades, the share of cereals or food grains as a percentage of food consumption has reduced from 13% to 8% in the country, whereas that of milk, eggs, fish and meat has increased (see Figure 1).  This indicates a reduced preference for wheat and rice, and a rise in preference towards other protein rich food items. Figure 1

Methods of providing food subsidy

Food subsidy is provided majorly using two methods.  We discuss these in detail below.

TPDS assures beneficiaries that they will receive food grains, and insulates them against price volatility. Food grains are delivered through fair price shops in villages, which are easy to access.[5],[6]

However, high leakages have been observed in the system, both during transportation and distribution.  These include pilferage and errors of inclusion and exclusion from the beneficiary list.  In addition, it has also been argued that the distribution of wheat and rice may cause an imbalance in the nutritional intake as discussed earlier.7  Beneficiaries have also reported receiving poor quality food grains as part of the system.

Cash Transfers seek to increase the choices available with a beneficiary, and provide financial assistance. It has been argued that the costs of DBT may be lesser than TPDS, owing to lesser costs incurred on transport and storage.  These transfers may also be undertaken electronically.6,7

However, it has also been argued that cash received as part of DBT may be spent on non-food items.  Such a system may also expose beneficiaries to inflation.  In this regard, one may also consider the low penetration and access to banking in rural areas.[7]

Figure 2

In 2017-18, 52% of the centre’s total subsidy expenditure will be on providing food subsidy under TPDS (see Figure 2).  The NFSA states that the centre and states should introduce schemes for cash transfers to beneficiaries.  Other experts have also suggested replacing TPDS with a Direct Benefit Transfer (DBT) system.4,[8]

The central government introduced cash subsidy to TPDS beneficiaries in September 2015.[9]  As of March 2016, this was being implemented on a pilot basis in a few union territories.  In 2015, a Committee on Restructuring of Food Corporation of India had also recommended introducing Aadhaar to plug leakages in PDS, and indexing it to inflation.  The Committee estimated that a switch to DBT would reduce the food subsidy bill of the government by more than Rs 30,000 crore.[10]

Current challenges in PDS

Leakages in PDS:  Leakages refer to food grains not reaching intended beneficiaries.  According to 2011 data, leakages in PDS were estimated to be 46.7%.10,[11]  Leakages may be of three types: (i) pilferage during transportation of food grains, (ii) diversion at fair price shops to non-beneficiaries, and (iii) exclusion of entitled beneficiaries from the list.6,[12]

In 2016, the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) found that states had not completed the process of identifying beneficiaries, and 49% of the beneficiaries were yet to be identified.  It also noted that inclusion and exclusion errors had been reported in the beneficiary lists.[13]

In February 2017, the Ministry made it mandatory for beneficiaries under NFSA to use Aadhaar as proof of identification for receiving food grains.  Through this, the government aims to remove bogus ration cards, check leakages and ensure better delivery of food grains.10,[14]  As of January 2017, while 100% ration cards had been digitised, the seeding of these cards with Aadhaar was at 73%.14

Figure 3

Storage:  As of 2016-17, the total storage capacity in the country is 788 lakh tonnes, of which 354 lakh tonnes is with the Food Corporation of India and 424 lakh tonnes is with the state agencies.[15]

The CAG in its performance audit found that the available storage capacity in states was inadequate for the allocated quantity of food grains.13  For example, as of October 2015, of the 233 godowns sanctioned for construction in Maharashtra, only 93 had been completed.  It also noted that in four of the last five years, the stock of food grains with the centre had been higher than the storage capacity available with Food Corporation of India.

Quality of food grains:  A survey conducted in 2011 had noted that people complained about receiving poor quality food grain which had to be mixed with other grains to be edible.6  There have also been complaints about people receiving food grains containing alien substances such as pebbles.  Poor quality of food may impact the willingness of people to buy food from fair price shops, and may have an adverse impact on their health.[16]

The Ministry has stated that while regular surveillance, monitoring, inspection and random sampling of all food items is under-taken by State Food Safety Officers, separate data for food grains distributed under PDS is unavailable.[17]  In the absence of data with regard to quality testing results of food grains supplied under PDS, it may be difficult to ascertain whether these food items meet the prescribed quality and safety standards.

[1] About World Food Day,

[2] Expenditure Budget, Union Budget 2017-18,

[3] National Food Security Act, 2013,

[4] “Prices, Agriculture and Food Management”, Chapter 5, Economic Survey 2015-16,

[5] The Case for Direct Cash Transfers to the Poor, Economic and Political Weekly, April 2008,

[6] Revival of the Public Distribution System: Evidence and Explanations, The Economic and Political Weekly, November 5, 2011,

[7] ‘Report of the Internal Working Group on Branch Authorisation Policy’, Reserve Bank of India, September 2016,

[8] Working Paper 294, “Leakages from Public Distribution System”, January 2015, ICRIER,

[9] “The Cash Transfer of Food Subsidy Rules, 2015”, Ministry of Consumer Affairs, Food and Public Distribution, September 3, 2015,

[10] Report of the High Level Committee on Reorienting the Role and Restructuring of Food Corporation of India, January 2015,

[11] Third Report of the Standing Committee on Food, Consumer Affairs and Public Distribution: Demands for Grants 2015-16, Department of Food and Public Distribution,,%20Consumer%20Affairs%20&%20Public%20Distribution/16_Food_Consumer_Affairs_And_Public_Distribution_3.pdf.

[12] Performance Evaluation of Targeted Public Distribution System, Planning Commission of India, March 2005,

[13] Audit on the Preparedness for Implementation of National Food Security Act, 2013 for the year ended March, 2015, Report No. 54 of 2015, Comptroller and Auditor General of India,

[14] Unstarred Question No. 844, Lok Sabha, Ministry of Consumer Affairs, Food and Public Distribution, Answered on February 7, 2017,

[15] Annual Report 2016-17, Department of Food & Public Distribution, Ministry of Consumer Affairs, Food & Public Distribution,

[16] 30 Food Subsidy, The Economic and Political Weekly, December 27, 2014,

[17] Unstarred Question No. 2124, Lok Sabha, Ministry of Consumer Affairs, Food and Public Distribution, Answered on November 29, 2016,

More food for thought – the Food Security Bill

May 9th, 2013 3 comments

The 15th Lok Sabha is close to the end of its tenure. A key legislation that proposes major reforms in food security was listed for discussion in Parliament. The National Food Security Bill, 2011 has been scrutinised by a Standing Committee. In January, we compared the Standing Committee’s recommendations with the provisions of the Bill. Since then, amendments to the Bill have been introduced in Parliament. Debates on the Bill have revolved around the method of delivering food security, the identification of beneficiaries and the financial implications of the Bill.

Method of delivery

The Bill aims to make the right to food a statutory right. It proposes to use the existing Public Distribution System (PDS) to deliver foodgrain to 75% of the rural and 50% of the urban population. However, the Bill also allows for cash transfers and food coupons in lieu of grains as mechanisms to deliver food security. While the PDS is known to suffer from leakages as high as 40%, cash transfers and food coupons are known to expose recipients to volatility and price inflation. Each method of delivery would have its own implications, financial and otherwise.  The table below compares these methods of delivery.[i]

Advantages and disadvantages of PDS and other delivery mechanisms

Insulates beneficiaries from inflation and price volatilityPoor identification and targeting of beneficiaries
Ensures entitlement is used for foodgrains onlyLow offtake of foodgrain from each household
Well-developed network of FPS ensures access to foodgrain even in remote areasLarge leakages and diversions of subsidised foodgrain
Adulteration of foodgrain
Lack of viability of FPSs due to low margins
Cash transfersCash in the hands of poor expands their choices Vulnerable to targeting errors
Cash may relieve financial constraints faced by the poor, make it possible to form thrift societies and access creditCash can be used to buy non- food items
Administrative costs of cash transfer programmes may be much less than that of centrally sponsored schemesMay expose recipients to price volatility and inflation
Potential for fully electronic transferThere is poor access to banks and post offices in some areas
Food couponsHousehold is given the freedom to choose where it buys food Vulnerable to targeting errors
Increases incentive for competitive prices and assured quality of foodgrain among PDS storesFood coupons are not indexed for inflation; may expose recipients to inflation
PDS stores get full price for foodgrains from the poor; no incentive to turn the poor awayDifficult to administer; known to have delays in issuing food coupons and reimbursing shops


The Bill does not universalise food entitlements. It classifies the population into two categories of beneficiaries, who shall be identified by the centre and states. Mechanisms that aim to target benefits to certain sections of the population have been prone to large inclusion and exclusion errors. A 2009 expert group study headed by N.C. Saxena that evaluated PDS, estimated that about 61% of the eligible population was excluded from the BPL list while 25% of APL households were included in the BPL list. Beneficiaries under the Food Security Bill will be identified through a similar process. It is unclear how these errors in identification of beneficiaries under the PDS will be addressed by the Bill.

Financial implications – cost sharing between the centre and states

A Bill that aims to deliver food security to a large section of the country would have significant financial implications. Costs shall be shared between the centre and states. Costs imposed on states (partial or full) include: nutritional support to pregnant women and lactating mothers, mid-day meals, anganwadi infrastructure, meals for children suffering from malnutrition, transport and delivery of foodgrains, creating and maintaining storage facilities, and costs associated with District Grievance Redressal Officers and State Food Commissions.  Although the centre shall provide some assistance, states will have to bear a significant financial burden on account of implementation.

It is unclear whether Parliament can require states to allocate funds without encroaching on the powers of state legislative assemblies. If a state chooses not to allocate the necessary funds or does not possess the funds to do so, implementation of the Bill could be seriously affected. The Standing Committee examining the Bill had recommended that an independent body, such as the Finance Commission, should be consulted regarding additional funds to be borne by states. The Right to Education Act with similar centre-state sharing of funds provides for such a consultation with the Finance Commission.

Cost of implementation of the Bill

Another contentious issue is the cost of implementing the Bill. The Bill estimates the cost at Rs 95,000 crore. However, experts have made varying estimates on the costs ranging from Rs 2 lakh crore to Rs 3.5 lakh crore. Ashok Gulati, Chairman of the Commission for Agricultural Costs and Prices, estimated the cost at 2 lakh crore per year whereas the Minister of Food, K.V. Thomas was reported to have estimated the cost at Rs 3.5 lakh crore.

The passage of the food security Bill in Parliament will depend on the ability of the government to build consensus on these issues. It remains to be seen how the Bill is debated next Parliament session.


[i] Kapur D., Mukhopadhyay P., and A.  Subramanian.  “The Case for Direct Cash Transfers to the Poor.” Economic and Political Weekly. Vol 43, No 15 (Apr 12-18, 2008). Khera, R. “Revival of the Public Distribution System: Evidence and Explanations.” Economic and Political Weekly. Vol XLVI, Nos 44 & 45 (Nov 5, 2011). Shah, M. “Direct Cash Transfers: No Magic Bullet.” Economic and Political Weekly. Vol 43, No 34, pp. 77-79 (Aug 23-29, 2008).