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] [table id=7 /]
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.