Cri­sis in Ch­hat­tis­garh over im­ple­men­ta­tion of food se­cu­rity law has cru­cial lessons for In­dia's public dis­tri­bu­tion sys­tem


Lessons from Ch­hat­tis­garh's mis­ad­ven­ture with food se­cu­rity law

THE UN­PRECE­DENTED surge in be­low-poverty-line (bpl) families in Ch­hat­tis­garh has a les­son for In­dia’s public dis­tri­bu­tion sys­tem (pds). In its over­drive to im­ple­ment its own food se­cu­rity law, the state has is­sued more ra­tion cards than the to­tal num­ber of house­holds. Po­lit­i­cal par­ties see it as a scan­dal, while it may be more than a sim­ple case of fudg­ing cards to ac­cess cheap food­grains. The cri­sis has some fun­da­men­tal mes­sages for the coun­try about to im­ple­ment the Na­tional Food Se­cu­rity Act.

Ch­hat­tis­garh passed its food se­cu­rity law in De­cem­ber 2012, which pro­vides for near-univer­sal cov­er­age of cheap food­grains. A few months be­fore this year’s gen­eral elec­tions were de­clared, the state gov­ern­ment em­barked on a campaign to dis­trib­ute ra­tion cards in the sec­ond half of 2013. While the state has 5.6 mil­lion house­holds, the gov­ern­ment is­sued more than seven mil­lion ra­tion cards. This also saw a rise in the num­ber of bpl house­holds in the state—within a month, bpl house­holds dou­bled from 3.3 mil­lion in Au­gust 2013 to nearly 6.58 mil­lion in Septem­ber. When the news made head­lines, the gov­ern­ment made over 1.4 mil­lion ra­tion cards in­el­i­gi­ble—the ex­act dif­fer­ence between the num­ber of house­holds and ra­tion card hold­ers.

Why was there such a surge in ra­tion card reg­is­tra­tion? The law de­fines house­hold as a fam­ily that has a com­mon kitchen. Each house­hold gets 35 kg of rice at 2 per kg ev­ery month un­der pds. Many joint families ` in Ch­hat­tis­garh gave a self-dec­la­ra­tion that they were in­di­vid­ual house­holds with sep­a­rate kitchen. This was easy to show—broth­ers in a fam­ily got a sep­a­rate gas con­nec­tion to show sep­a­rate kitchens. Thus, overnight, a house- hold turned into mul­ti­ple house­holds un­der the same roof.

Why would some­body do this? This is where the de­bate over who is el­i­gi­ble for cheap food­grains and how it should be de­liv­ered comes into play. The price dif­fer­ence between pds and open mar­ket food­grains is huge. Ev­ery­body loves cheap food, par­tic­u­larly when food in­fla­tion is high.

Then there is the prob­lem of in­equal­ity. For ex­am­ple, a joint fam­ily of 10 per­sons having a com­mon kitchen will get 35 kg of food­grains ev­ery month, so will a fam­ily com­pris­ing three or four mem­bers. While the quan­tity may suf­fice the lat­ter, it is not enough for a large house­hold, which suf­fers the most. At the same time, peo­ple pre­fer to avail food un­der pds as prices are low and the law makes it an en­ti­tle­ment.So a joint fam­ily no­tion­ally splits to avail more food­grains. This is not to sug­gest that there were no fraud­u­lent cards taken by in­el­i­gi­ble peo­ple. The big dif­fer­ence between the price of public and open mar­ket food­grains makes it a lucrative com­mod­ity for black mar­ket.

The mes­sage from Ch­hat­tis­garh is crit­i­cal as we ex­pect a ro­bust pds to roll out the Na­tional Food Se­cu­rity Act. It is ev­i­dent that mak­ing pds univer­sal may not ren­der it cor­rup­tion-free, as is ev­i­dent from Ch­hat­tis­garh. In fact, we fo­cus too much on cor­rup­tion leav­ing aside other is­sues of im­por­tance. In­equal­ity in a highly sub­sidised food sys­tem is go­ing to be a much big­ger chal­lenge than the de­liv­ery mech­a­nism. Sim­i­larly, the price dif­fer­ence will boost the black mar­ket.The prob­lem will only get big­ger. The lessons from Ch­hat­tis­garh must be in­sti­tu­tion­alised to en­sure that the Na­tional Food Se­cu­rity Act does not de­rail be­fore it starts.


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