The Minister for Consumer Affairs, Food and Public Distribution Ram Vilas Paswan's recent announcement to cover the entire country with foodgrains distribution scheme under the much-publicised National Food Security Act (NFSA) from April 1 this year, is being viewed as a significant step towards eliminating hunger and malnutrition from the country. The number of states providing wheat at Rs 2 per kg, rice at Rs 3 per kg and coarse grains at Rs 1 per kg per person has been increased to 25 states from 11 during the last 19 months of the NDA Government at the Centre. “We will implement this social security scheme in all 35 states and union terrorities, except Tamil Nadu, by April 1 this year”, said Paswan.
The NFSA, also known as Right to Food Act, was introduced with much fanfare and for bright electoral prospects by the then UPA Government in September 2013, ahead of the General Election in May 2014. The Act aims at providing subsidised foodgrains to approximately two-thirds of India's population through the traditional Public Distribution System (PDS).
Statistically speaking, the scheme is incurring an estimated government spending of Rs 1,25,000 crore annually on supply of about 62 million tonne of rice, wheat and coarse cereals to 67 per cent of India's population — which comes to around 82 crore beneficiaries. Being the biggest such social security scheme in the world, the Food Security Act entitles the beneficiaries to get 5 kg foodgrains every month at highly subsidised rates of Rs 1-3 per kg. The Act includes the existing food security programmes of the Government of India, including the Mid-Day Meal, Integrated Child Development Services and the Public Distribution System (PDS). While the states are responsible for determining eligibility criteria, the Central Government is providing funds to the states in case of short supplies of foodgrains through the Food Corporation of India (FCI).
However, considered to be the most important food security network in terms of coverage and public expenditure, the PDS has always been criticised for its urban bias and its failure to serve the poorer sections of the population effectively. The targeted PDS is costly and often gives rise to much corruption in the process of extricating the poor from those who are less needy. Presently, India has the largest stock of foodgrains in the world, besides China. The government spends Rs 750 billion per year, which is almost 1 per cent of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP), yet nearly 21 per cent of the Indian population is undernourished. As of now, nearly 5 lakh fair-price shops are running across the country to cater to the food requirements of poorer sections of society and intended beneficiaries of the food-security scheme but there are grave concerns about the efficiency of the distribution process. The foodgrains supplied by the ration shops are not enough to meet consumption needs of the poor or are of inferior quality.
To check leakages and loopholes in the PDS, the Government has succeeded in digitisation of ration cards across the country. Officials say that so far 97 per cent cards have been digitised and the process will soon be completed. Moreover, all the 36 states and union territories now have an online system for redressal of the public distribution system grievances. Direct cash transfer of food subsidy to the beneficiaries was also started in the union territories of Chandigarh and Pudducherry in September last year.
The states have a major role in effectively implementing various centrally sponsored schemes, especially the Right to Food Act. The central and state governments share the responsibility of regulating the PDS. While the Centre takes care of procurement, storage, transportation and bulk allocation of foodgrains, the state government holds the responsibility for distributing the same to the consumers through the established network of fair-price shops. States are also responsible for operational responsibilities, including allocation and identification of families below the poverty line, issue of ration cards, supervision and monitoring the functioning of fair-price shops. Therefore, states will have to be extra vigilant to check leakages in the PDS and ensure implementation of the scheme in the true sense, thus allowing percolation of benefits to the intended beneficiaries.
Undoubtedly, the Right to Food scheme is a panacea for those who are starving in this agriculture-based country. A key objective of this Act is to fight malnutrition among children in the age group of six months to six years, among pregnant and lactating mothers and providing them other maternity benefits. The Act also guarantees food security allowance if an eligible person does not get the entitlement.
According to World Bank estimates, India is one of the highest ranking countries in the world for the number of children suffering from malnutrition.
The prevalence of underweight children in India is among the highest in the world, with dire consequences for mobility, mortality, productivity and economic growth. Unfortunately, the report of Global Hunger Index (GHI) for the year 2015 ranked India 20th amongst leading countries with a serious hunger situation. Among the South Asian countries, it ranks third behind only Afghanistan and Pakistan with a GHI score of 29.0, which indicates a "serious situation".
Though most of our population is still living below the national poverty line, India's economic growth indicates new opportunities and a movement towards increase in the prevalence of chronic diseases which is observed in at high rates in developed countries like United States, Canada and Australia. Interestingly, the combination of people living in poverty and the recent economic growth of India has led to the co-emergence of two types of malnutrition: under-nutrition and over-nutrition.
Right to Food may be an offshoot of the previous UPA Government's political plank like MNREGA and loan waiver, but the scheme has all ingredients to wipe out hunger and malnutrition, if implemented in letter and spirit through all length and breadth of the country. There is no denying the fact that lakhs of ICDS and school children between the age group of six months to six years and six years to 14 years, respectively, remain heavily dependent on the mid-day meal and anganwari food for their mere survival. Similarly, long queues can also be seen outside fair-price shops to take rations under Antodya and Right to Food schemes. However, PDS needs to be further strengthened to ensure supply of foodgrains to the intended beneficiaries. Leakages that are an integral part of the distribution system need to be plugged sternly. States also need to come forward more liberally, without political considerations, to run the scheme in addition to their own subsidised and successful distribution schemes.
The need is to revise this scheme by increasing monthly foodgrains limit per family and per month and ensure that food reaches every needy person so that he or she does not sleep hungry in this country of vast agricultural resources. Only then the dream of a hunger-free and well-nourished India can be fulfilled.
The writer is News Editor, Doordarshan News.
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