Food bill needs proper selection of beneficiaries: NAC member
New Delhi: The legislation on food security is a necessary but not sufficient condition for reducing hunger, National Advisory Council (NAC) member N C Saxena says, cautioning that there could be disenchantment and anger once the distribution of food grain begins if the procedure for selecting the beneficiaries is not transparent.
"Passing the bill is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for reducing hunger. India requires a significant increase of targeted investments in irrigation, rural electrification, nutritional programmes, clinics, disease control, rural roads and sanitation," Saxena told in an interview.
Saxena, who worked on a draft food security bill in the NAC, welcomed the government`s decision to promulgate an ordinance on the food security bill, saying that a lot of discussion had taken place in the media and nothing was being gained by procrastination.
He said the right to food encompasses many sectors like health, nutrition, agriculture, livelihood, gender equality and water and bringing them on a converged platform would result in synergy.
Saxena, who has served as secretary of the Planning Commission and director of the National Academy of Administration, Mussoorie, said there were challenges relating to inter-state allocations, identification of beneficiaries and Public Distribution System (PDS) reforms.
He said the country also needs systemic reforms that will improve the accountability of government machinery.
President Pranab Mukherjee July 5 promulgated the National Food Security Ordinance after it was approved by the union cabinet. The food security bill is expectedto be taken up in the monsoon session of parliament that begins later this month.
The ordinance states that government would provide 5 kg of foodgrain per person per month to priority households, and 35 kg per household per month to 2.5 crore Antyodaya households at Rs. 3, Rs. 2,Rs. 1 per kg forrice, wheat and coarse grains.
The priority and Antyodaya households would account for 75 percent of the rural population and 50 percent the urban population, thus covering about 18 crore households. Their state-wise number will be determined by the union government but identification of eligible households will be left to the state governments, who may frame their own criterion or use the socio-economic caste census (SECC).
Saxena said distribution of foodgrains cannot begin unless the 67 percent eligible households were identified.
He said the Global Hunger Report 2012 has placed India in the category of nations where hunger is "alarming."
"NSSO (National Sample Survey Organisation) data shows that the average per capita food expenditure during the period 1993 to 2010 increased only by 0.2 per cent annually in rural India, and fell slightly by 0.1 per cent per annum in the urban areas," Saxena pointed out.
He said cereal intake of the bottom 20 percent in rural India continues to be at least 20 percent lower than the cereal intake of the top decile of the population and the poor were forced to spend more on health, children`s education, transport and fuel than before from their limited income.
"For them, food is still needed but not demanded for lack of resources. In the process, they get stunted and malnourished. Endemic hunger continues to afflict a large proportion of the Indian population," he said.
Saxena, who chaired a government committee on identification of the poor in 2009, said SECC results will not be finally available for all the states, especially the larger states like UP, Bihar and Tamil Nadu, until the middle of 2014.
He said there has been a lot of secrecy in doing the survey and people were not sure about their inclusion even in states like Haryana, where the lists have been shared with them.
"There could of great deal of disenchantment and anger when actual distribution of grain begins. The present procedure for selection of BPL beneficiaries is opaque, bureaucratic and does not involve gram sabhas. The basis on which village-wise caps on the maximum number of entitled beneficiaries is fixed, is not clear and not well defined. It would have been better if gram sabhas were involved in the survey process," Saxena told.
Saxena said a significant challenge was to decide the inter-state allocation of foodgrains for the PDS to meet the requirements of the legislation on food security.
He said states such as Chhattisgarh, Odisha and Rajasthan have undertaken state-level PDS reforms by extending coverage, improving delivery and increasing transparency.
"The best results are seen in Chhattisgarh because of replacement of private dealers by panchayats, increased commissions, coverage of more than 80 percent families under the scheme as opposed to only 40 percent who are officially recognized as BPL by the central government and a regular monitoring and grievance redressal mechanism that leads to swift action if foodgrain does not reach the people," Saxena said.
Asked about demands for universalising the PDS, Saxena said a better option would be to make the scheme universal in 150 of the poorest districts and study the results.
"The scheme can be gradually extended to other districts if we stop exports and improve both production and procurement," he said.