The recently enacted National Food Security Act, 2013 (NFSA) is being described as a ‘game changer’ to strengthen food and nutritional security in the country. It goes without saying that, be it basic staples (wheat and rice) or other foods (edible oil, pulses, fruits, vegetables, milk and milk products, egg, meat, fish etc), India has been quite successful in ensuring their ample availability to its population. But in addition to food availability, there are two more critical factors in ensuring food security to the citizen’s - access to food and its absorption for better nourishment.
Despite robust economic growth in recent years, one-third of India’s population, i.e. more than 376 million people in 2010 still lived below the poverty line, as per World Bank’s definition of $1.25 a day. Besides, the National Family Health Survey (NFHS-3) of 2005-06 highlighted that amongst children under five years, 20% were acutely and 48% chronically undernourished. The above facts definitely underline the continued relevance for safety net targeting that makes the poor and vulnerable food secure in terms of nutrition, dietary needs and changing food preferences.
In this context, the NFSA marks a significant shift in strengthening such safety net targeting from the current welfare approach to a rights based approach. A legal right has now been conferred on eligible beneficiaries to receive entitled quantities of food grains at subsidized prices. This has been supplemented with conferring a similar right to women, children and other vulnerable groups to receive meals free of charge. Such rights have been backed in the Act by an internal grievance redressal mechanism that seeks to foster transparency and accountability in the last mile governance of public delivery structures i.e. 400,000 price shops. The backbone of the Act, of course, is the large scale distribution of food grains to 67% of the country’s population of 1.2 billion (perhaps the biggest ever program in the world to achieve food and nutritional security).
The first and foremost challenge is to ensure the sustained availability of food grains with public authorities in wake of the legal right guaranteed to entitled beneficiaries. Self sufficiency has been achieved in food grain production at 257 million tonnes despite the growing pressure on land and water as a result of climate change. Besides, a gradual shift in the geographic cropped area has been planned over the years from North Western states to Eastern states of Bihar, Madhya Pradesh and West Bengal due to overexploitation of ground water reserves. But despite the record food grain production achieved, lack of marketing and procurement infrastructure in these states has been a cause of distress to the small holding farming community.
A related key issue is the efficiency of the food grain procurement, transportation and distribution chain via the Central Pool by the Food Corporation of India (FCI). Though this system in applicable to the entire country, it operates primarily in a few surplus states such as Punjab, Haryana, Western UP and Andhra Pradesh. The Commission on Agricultural Costs and Prices (CACP) of India observes that it would be cheaper to procure food grains from states such as Madhya Pradesh, Bihar, Gujarat, etc. and deliver to neighboring deficit/remote states in Central, Eastern and Western India. This could also possibly reduce the scourge of wastage of food grains.
Besides, maintaining and moving the buffer stocks is another mammoth task. In fact, additional procurement, storage and distribution by the FCI under NFSA would require rail head connections for all FCI storage points and increase in bulk wagon availability with Indian Railways. One key aspect that needs immediate attention is reform of the FCI apparatus with allowance for public private partnerships in physical movement and storage of grains.
Thus, there is a need, during the next three years, to enhance strategic investments in agricultural infrastructure, especially, in the grain marketing network (as has been done in Chhattisgarh) while we continue to push productivity enhancing technologies in irrigation, power, fertilizers, seeds and post harvest activities.
The second challenge is to eliminate leakage and corruption and ensure stringent monitoring under NFSA at the last mile distribution points (fair price shops) in states. The provisions under Chapter V of NFSA envisage a bouquet of innovative reforms that can be effected by the states. The use of fake ration cards in these shops has already been addressed by states such as Tamil Naidu and Kerala by computerization of databases and using hologram enabled technologies. These states have also experimented successfully with running of cooperative fair price shops. The state of Madhya Pradesh has taken a significant step and used the private sector to computerize the Public Distribution System (PDS) and register beneficiaries with the biometric Aadhaar numbers as well as provide food coupons.
In fact, what we need to achieve is a pan-India scale with regard to application of communication technologies under NFSA, especially covering remote and backward regions/districts with vulnerable populations. Rural banking also needs to be strengthened. And to do so, the implementation of 2011 recommendations of the Task Force on IT Strategy for PDS (that details the use of latest technology in supply chain management and electronic payments) has to be fast tracked in the coming three years.
A pertinent related issue is introduction of cash transfers (as was done in Brazil, Mexico, Philippines, Ethiopia, and Bangladesh) in lieu of food grain entitlements linking it with the biometric Aadhaar number. The idea is to revisit the food grain policy and avoid the pitfalls of nationwide stocking, storage and distribution of food grains across diverse agro-climatic regions of India. While individual states would have the freedom to devise their own systems, the CACP’s observations in this context need to be viewed seriously. It suggests that states’ surplus in cereal production and cities with a population of one million or more could straight away move to cash transfers. Such a step would enable maintaining an optimum buffer stock, ease distribution/storage problems and bundle cash transfer with health/education initiatives. More importantly, it would prune the estimated US $ 24 billion food subsidy for providing approximately 62 million tonnes of food grains by physical movement through the public distribution system.
Photograph by Ray Witlin via World Bank Photo Collection, available here.
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