The implementation of the National Food Security Act is mired in apathy and confusion. A grave injustice is being done to millions of people who live on the margin of subsistence. It is not too late to remove the roadblocks, but this requires a sense of urgency

An odd silence has surrounded the National Food Security Act (NFSA) in the last few months — as if food insecurity were a thing of the past. It may be recalled that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), far from opposing the Act, vociferously demanded a more comprehensive law when the NFSA was being discussed in Parliament in 2013. In some States, notably Chhattisgarh, the BJP had taken the lead in guaranteeing entitlements that were later included in the Act, and also in showing that the Public Distribution System (PDS) can be reformed. Today, however, the Modi government’s urge to “get things done” does not seem to extend to the NFSA.

Step towards food security

This is unfortunate because the nutrition situation in India remains critical. Very few countries if any, had higher levels of child undernourishment in 2005-6, the last time India collected reliable nutrition statistics at the national level (under the third National Family Health Survey). What happened since then is hard to tell. Some surveys, including a government-sponsored UNICEF survey, suggest significant improvement. Others, notably the second India Human Development Survey, point to very limited progress. This statistical fog, largely due to the failure of the fourth National Family Health Survey, does not help matters. What is clear is that even if substantial progress took place since 2005-6, undernutrition levels in India remain higher than almost anywhere else in the world.

It is no one’s claim that the NFSA is an adequate answer to this problem. The Act has serious flaws, and leaves out some important requirements of good nutrition (e.g. sanitation). Still, effective implementation of NFSA would make an important contribution to food security and improved nutrition. Recent experience shows that a well-functioning PDS makes a big difference to people who live on the margin of subsistence. The Act is also an opportunity to strengthen valuable child nutrition programmes such as school meals and the Integrated Child Development Services.

Central and State governments are jointly responsible for the tardy implementation of the Act. In some respects, the blame clearly lies with the Central government. For instance, ever since July 2013, all Indian women have been entitled to maternity benefits of Rs.6,000 per month under NFSA. It is the Central government’s responsibility to design a scheme for this purpose and to fund it. Yet, this critical provision of the Act does not seem to figure in discussions of the forthcoming Budget.

A new PDS

In other respects, the State governments also have much to answer for. This applies in particular to food entitlements under the PDS. The Act provides for the PDS to cover 75 per cent of the rural population and 50 per cent of the urban population at the national level — the corresponding ratios are higher in the poorer States and lower in better-off States. Every eligible household is entitled to 5 kg of foodgrain per person per month at a nominal price (Rs.3, Rs.2 and Rs.1 per kg for rice, wheat and millets respectively). This would mean that the PDS takes care of about half of the foodgrain consumption of eligible households.

“Even if substantial progress took place since 2005-6, undernutrition levels in India remain higher than almost anywhere else in the world.”

This “new PDS” does not require any increase in public procurement of foodgrains, beyond the levels achieved in recent years. It is mainly a restructuring of the system, with broader coverage, lower issue prices and clear entitlements. Recent experience shows that these steps, along with bold PDS reforms, can lead to drastic improvements in the system. This experience is not confined to leader States like Tamil Nadu or Chhattisgarh, but now extends to some lame-duck States as well, e.g. Odisha. Even Bihar, one of the worst-governed States, has achieved remarkable PDS improvements in recent years.

The NFSA is an opportunity to consolidate these achievements and extend them across the country. The main stumbling block is the identification of eligible households. When the Act was being drafted, it was assumed that the identification process would be based on the Socio Economic and Caste Census (SECC). The idea was to use simple and transparent “exclusion criteria” (e.g. having a permanent government job or owning a motorised vehicle) to weed out relatively well-off households — everyone else would be eligible. SECC is the best available database for this purpose.

The SECC saga

Alas, the release of SECC data has been excruciatingly slow. According to the official SECC website, a “draft list” has been released for about three fourths of India’s districts. However, data are missing for at least some districts in half of India’s major States. Where a draft list has been released, a “final list” is supposed to be prepared after giving every household an opportunity to appeal for corrections — this could take a long time. Meanwhile, for better or worse, some States have gone ahead and issued ration cards based on the draft SECC list.

Aside from the delay, there are other shortcomings in the SECC process. Even in districts for which data have been released, the draft list has important gaps. Also, it is displayed in an odd format (pdf) that does not lend itself to computer searches or tabulations. This is an embarrassing muddle, considering that the Central government spent some Rs.5,000 crore on this exercise.

In the absence of SECC data, some States have resorted to shortcuts such as expanding the old “BPL list”, instead of preparing a new list of eligible households. These shortcuts tend to be fraught with problems. The BPL lists, often as old as 2002 or even 1997, are highly unreliable. In some States, a well-defined BPL list does not even exist — there are different lists in different places (e.g. on the net, at the district level, and at the gram panchayat level), inconsistent with each other. The SECC approach is an opportunity to clean this mess and prepare a single, transparent, logical, digitised list of eligible households.

Bihar’s recent experience shows the benefits of using SECC data to identify eligible households, based on the exclusion approach. The outdated, elusive and often arbitrary BPL list has been replaced with a far more reliable list, transparently linked to SECC data that are available online. Since the SECC’s household listing corresponds to the 2011 population census, the coverage of SECC data is close to universal. There are, of course, inaccuracies in the SECC data, but judging from a recent survey of 1,000 households in four districts of Bihar, the errors are rarely such as to exclude a household that would otherwise be eligible under NFSA. The main shortcoming of the Bihar process, as things stand, is that the list of eligible households is yet to be placed in the public domain. Nevertheless, this approach is a real breakthrough compared with the BPL census. West Bengal is now following a similar approach.

Committee recommendations

Many other States, however, are unable or unwilling to follow this lead due to delays or gaps in the SECC data. Rajasthan, the first State to implement NFSA, made a mess by relying on an extension of the BPL list to identify eligible households. Odisha, frustrated with the delays, embarked on an entirely separate identification process based on self-declaration — a very risky venture. Jharkhand, lagging behind in these matters, has not moved beyond a series of vacuous announcements.

Just to add to the confusion, the recent report of the Shanta Kumar committee recommends a reduction of the coverage of NFSA from 67 per cent to 40 per cent of the population. How this is supposed to be done, halfway through the implementation of the Act, the report does not explain. Aside from threatening to cause havoc in States that are already implementing the Act, the report has created crippling uncertainties for other States. How is, say, Jharkhand supposed to follow Bihar’s lead if there is a possibility of the expansion of PDS coverage being rolled back any time?

On a more positive note, PDS reforms have made remarkable progress in many States — even Jharkhand — as they prepared for the Food Security Act. It would take little to remove the roadblocks, starting with the release of SECC data, and ensure that the Act serves its purpose. This process, however, requires a sense of urgency that is wholly lacking as things stand.

(Jean Drèze is Visiting Professor at the Department of Economics, Ranchi University.)