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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.

Background

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, http://www.fao.org/world-food-day/2017/about/en/.

[2] Expenditure Budget, Union Budget 2017-18, http://unionbudget.nic.in/ub2017-18/eb/allsbe.pdf.

[3] National Food Security Act, 2013, http://indiacode.nic.in/acts-in-pdf/202013.pdf.

[4] “Prices, Agriculture and Food Management”, Chapter 5, Economic Survey 2015-16, http://unionbudget.nic.in/budget2016-2017/es2015-16/echapvol2-05.pdf.

[5] The Case for Direct Cash Transfers to the Poor, Economic and Political Weekly, April 2008, http://www.epw.in/system/files/pdf/2008_43/15/The_Case_for_Direct_Cash_Transfers_to_the_Poor.pdf.

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

http://www.epw.in/system/files/pdf/2011_46/44-45/Revival_of_the_Public_Distribution_System_Evidence_and_Explanations.pdf.

[7] ‘Report of the Internal Working Group on Branch Authorisation Policy’, Reserve Bank of India, September 2016, https://rbidocs.rbi.org.in/rdocs/PublicationReport/Pdfs/IWG99F12F147B6E4F8DBEE8CEBB8F09F103.PDF.

[8] Working Paper 294, “Leakages from Public Distribution System”, January 2015, ICRIER, http://icrier.org/pdf/Working_Paper_294.pdf.

[9] “The Cash Transfer of Food Subsidy Rules, 2015”, Ministry of Consumer Affairs, Food and Public Distribution, September 3, 2015, http://dfpd.nic.in/writereaddata/Portal/News/32_1_cash.pdf.

[10] Report of the High Level Committee on Reorienting the Role and Restructuring of Food Corporation of India, January 2015, http://www.fci.gov.in/app2/webroot/upload/News/Report%20of%20the%20High%20Level%20Committee%20on%20Reorienting%20the%20Role%20and%20Restructuring%20of%20FCI_English_1.pdf.

[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, http://164.100.47.193/lsscommittee/Food,%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, http://planningcommission.nic.in/reports/peoreport/peo/peo_tpds.pdf.

[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, http://cag.gov.in/sites/default/files/audit_report_files/Union_Civil_National_Food_Security_Report_54_of_2015.pdf.

[14] Unstarred Question No. 844, Lok Sabha, Ministry of Consumer Affairs, Food and Public Distribution, Answered on February 7, 2017, http://164.100.47.190/loksabhaquestions/annex/11/AU844.pdf.

[15] Annual Report 2016-17, Department of Food & Public Distribution, Ministry of Consumer Affairs, Food & Public Distribution, http://dfpd.nic.in/writereaddata/images/annual-140217.pdf.

[16] 30 Food Subsidy, The Economic and Political Weekly, December 27, 2014, http://www.epw.in/system/files/pdf/2014_49/52/Food_Subsidy.pdf.

[17] Unstarred Question No. 2124, Lok Sabha, Ministry of Consumer Affairs, Food and Public Distribution, Answered on November 29, 2016, http://164.100.47.190/loksabhaquestions/annex/10/AU2124.pdf.

Ministry of Consumer Affairs launches National Transparency Portal on PDS

November 2nd, 2012 2 comments

A recent news report has discussed the methods by which states such as Chattisgarh have attempted to reform the Public Distribution System (PDS).  Chattisgarh has computerised its PDS supply chain and introduced smart cards as part of a slew of measures to plug pilferage and weed out corruption in the system.  In an effort to create a national computerised database for PDS, the Ministry of Consumer Affairs has launched an online National Transparency Portal for the Public Distribution System.  The portal aims to provide end-to-end computerisation of PDS; it is a single platform in the public domain for all PDS related information.

The PDS is a centrally sponsored scheme that entitles beneficiaries to subsidised foodgrains every month.  Currently, beneficiaries are divided into the following groups: Below Poverty Line (BPL), Above Poverty Line and Antodaya Anna Yojana.  As such, several challenges have been identified in the implementation of PDS.  Some of them are as follows:

  1. Targeting errors: Separating beneficiaries of the PDS into three categories requires their classification and identification.  Targeting mechanisms, however, have been prone to large inclusion and exclusion errors.  In 2009, an expert group estimated that about 61% of the eligible population was excluded from the BPL list while 25% of non-poor households were included in the BPL list.
  2. Large leakages and diversion of subsidized foodgrain:  Foodgrain is procured by the centre and transported from the central to state godowns.  Last mile delivery from state godowns to the Fair Price Shop (FPS) where beneficiaries can purchase grain with ration cards, is the responsibility of the state government.  Large quantities of foodgrain are leaked and diverted into the open market during this supply chain.

The creation of the e-portal could help track these issues more effectively and increase transparency in the system. The portal contains information relating to FPS and ration cards attached to the FPS.  It is likely that this will help weed out bogus ration cards and improve targeting of subsidies.  The portal also has information on capacity utilization of Food Corporation of India, state storage godowns, and data on central pool stocks.  This helps track storage supplies of grains at each level and aims to prevent leakage of grain.

With respect to data on PDS in states, the portal hosts information such as the central orders on monthly allocation of foodgrain to states, state-specific commodity sale prices, lifting position of states, etc. for public view.  All states and union territories will be required to maintain and update the data on the portal.

The reforms come at a time when the National Food Security Bill, 2011 is pending in Parliament.  The Bill aims to deliver foodgrain entitlements through Targeted PDS to 75% of the rural and 50% of the urban population.  The Bill is currently under examination by the Standing Committee of Food, Consumer Affairs and Public Distribution.  It proposes reforms to the TPDS, which include the application of information and communication technology, including end-to-end computerisation.  These reforms seek to ensure full transparency of records in the PDS and prevent diversion of foodgrains.  The creation of the e-portal might be a step towards reforming the PDS.

For an analysis of the National Food Security Bill, see here.

Guesstimating Access to Food Security

April 7th, 2010 1 comment

The empowered group of ministers (EGoM) met recently to review the draft food security bill. Two issues have been reported to have gained prominence in their discussions – the exact number of poor families that are likely to be beneficiaries under the Food Security Act and reforming of the targeted public distribution system.

On the issue of estimating poverty, it is reported that the Planning Commission has been asked to submit a report in three weeks on the number of  (BPL) families that are likely to be legally entitled to food under the said Act.

The Minister of Agriculture is reported to have said “It is up to them [Planning Commission] whether they base it [BPL list] on the Tendulkar Committee report or the earlier N.C. Saxena panel or the Wadhwa committee.”

The estimation of poor persons in India involves two broad steps:

(i) fixing a threshold or poverty line that establishes poverty, and

(ii) counting the number of people below this line.

Estimating these numbers is a contentious issue – ridden by debates around norms and parameters for defining poverty, methodology to estimate poverty, etc.

The Planning Commission estimates the percentage and number of BPL persons separately in rural and urban areas from a large sample survey conducted by the National Sample Survey Organization (NSSO) which operates under the Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation.

In addition various government social sector schemes are targeted specifically at the poor and require the government to identify BPL beneficiaries.  For this purpose the Ministry of Rural Development designs a BPL census and that is conducted by the States/UTs.  The BPL census website gives data on BPL households for 2002 based on the poverty estimates for 1999-2000, by state, district and block.

The targeted public distribution system was recently subjected to scrutiny by a Supreme Court appointed vigilance committee headed by Justice D P Wadhwa. Amongst many issues, the committee reported that “the PDS is inefficient and corrupt.  There is diversion and black-marketing of PDS food grain in large scale.  Subsidized PDS food grain does not reach the poor who desperately need the same.  These poor people never get the PDS food grain in proper quantity and quality.”

The two issues highlighted here are important to ensure that the proposed legislation on food security is not a leaky bucket in the making.   As the draft food security bill is not in the public domain it is difficult to comment on how the government is thinking on length and breadth of issues that govern giving access to food security.