People's Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)


No. 30

July 24, 2011

Food Security Bill—Taking More than it Gives


Brinda Karat


THE much awaited food security bill has been finalised by the group of ministers. Considering that India has large foodgrain buffer stocks and is about to export substantial amounts of foodgrains, the government had an opportunity to address the shameful reality of widespread malnutrition through a bill that was based on a universal system of public distribution. It failed to do so. The bill in fact takes away more than it gives on at least five counts. Firstly, it cuts down the numbers of all those covered under the targeted public distribution system (APL and BPL) from the current 82 per cent of households covered  to 75 per cent in rural areas and 50 per cent in urban areas. Secondly, it reduces the current BPL beneficiaries from 56 per cent (state government recognised beneficiaries) to 46 per cent in rural areas and just 28 per cent in urban areas. Thirdly, it cuts down on allocations from a 35 kg minimum guarantee to individual linked low quotas; fourthly, it raises the price of rice from two rupees (through state government schemes in over ten states) to three rupees for BPL households and mandates an upwardly floating price index for APL households; on the fifth count, it reduces the numbers of APL households.


The framework itself is questionable since the central government usurps, through various provisions in the bill, overriding powers. The bill centralises all powers in the hands of the central government from numbers, criteria, responsibilities to expenditure. These highly centralised powers are designed to legalise and institutionalise instruments of neo-liberal policies like targeting with a reduction of entitlements and cash transfers instead of guaranteed foodgrains.  The ability of state governments to pursue an alternative system of food security as several have done, will get circumscribed if the present bill is to become law.  It also, for the first time, links the right to food with the questionable Aadhar or unique identification system based on biometric information.  


The overriding negative features of the proposed legislation far outweigh its positive initiatives, which appear as a cosmetic cover for what is essentially an undermining of the right to food security. 




The universalisation of public distribution, which alone would guarantee the right to food and food security, is buried by this proposed legislation. The bill not only retains the APL and BPL divisions with a changed nomenclature from BPL to ‘priority’ sections and from APL to ‘general’ sections, it adds a third category, namely the ‘excluded’ sections. The dubious and highly objectionable criteria of poverty estimation of the Planning Commission which in monetary terms works out to 15 rupees a day for rural India and 20 rupees for urban India gets legal  sanction as does the utterly arbitrary linkages between poverty estimates and poverty “quotas” to the states handed out by the Planning Commission and the central government. Sec 13(1) of the bill states “the central government shall, for each state determine the number of persons belonging to the priority (BPL) households.” Sec 13 (2) further extends this arbitrary method. It lays down that 75 per cent in rural India and 50 per cent in urban India will be covered. In other words at least 25 per cent in rural India and 50 per cent in urban India are to be “excluded” from the ambit of the bill. Sec 14 (1) gives the central government the right to lay down the guidelines for identification and also the “exclusion criteria for purposes of this Act.”


This is a most unacceptable and arbitrary imposition. It means that regardless of what the actual BPL survey shows regarding the numbers who are to be excluded on the basis of the exclusion criteria, 25 per cent of the rural population will have to be denied even APL cards.


In this context, the National Advisory Council headed by Sonia Gandhi which includes several activists of the right to food campaign has done a great disservice to the very concept of food security by compromising on the crucial issue of giving a legal status to the dubious methodology of the Planning Commission and accepting the linkage to quotas.  In Sec 21 of the NAC draft it is stated that identification of priority households will “be based on the criteria notified by the central government.”  Once this flawed policy was accepted by the right to food activists in the NAC, their protestations about reduced percentages seem superficial.




In fact even on percentages, the official bill in its Schedule 2, accepts the NAC draft suggestion of giving BPL status to just 46 per cent of the rural population and 28 per cent of the urban population.  This it is claimed increases the total numbers of BPL beneficiaries by 10 percentage points. In fact this is a convenient way of overlooking the actual numbers of those holding BPL cards today. It is true that the total number of BPL households officially recognised by the central government is 6.52 crores or 36 per cent of the population calculated on the basis of 2001 (projected from 1991) population figures. This itself has been a scandal of undercoverage since the actual numbers should have been increased proportionate to the increase in population over the last ten years. Be that as it may, in any case the state governments have according to their own estimates increased the number of BPL card holders by over 4.5 crores to 11.04 crore households. This means that at present around 56 per cent of the population is covered for BPL benefits.  The present bill as recommended by the NAC continues the unjustified denial of state government estimates. Thus instead of recognising 56 per cent as BPL households to at least maintain the present numbers of households covered, the bill reduces the numbers to 46 per cent. 


The bill shifts from a present minimum of 35 Kgs per family to an individual based system with ration quotas for BPL families fixed at 7 Kgs per “person”.  While individual based quotas may appear to be reasonable, in fact it would punish poor families who have fewer children.  For example, in a state like Kerala where the average family size is smaller, the present quota of 35 kg will be cut, say for a family with four members to 28 kgs. Additionally it is not clear in the bill whether a child would have the same entitlement of 7 Kgs as an adult has. This is a grey area which requires clarification. It would have been fairer to have kept the minimum allocation amount as 35 kg for a family and increased it by a certain amount per additional person over an average of five members per family so that no BPL family would actually suffer a cut from the 35 kgs that they are presently entitled to. 


Around ten state governments have already put in place a system where BPL families get rice at two rupees a kilo. In Tamilnadu, rice is being provided at one rupee a kilo. The bill ignores these existing price benefits and pegs the present price of rice for BPL families at three rupees a kilo. Thus on this count also the entitlement gets reduced. However the price of wheat has been kept at two rupees a kilo and that of millets at one rupee a kilo. But the central government has the right to change these prices at any time.




According to the information provided by the food ministry to the Chief Ministers Conference in February 2010 the total number of APL card holders was 11.51 crores. It is indeed ironic that the same central government which has drafted this bill puts the numbers of “accepted families” (as opposed to the unacceptable state government estimates) of APL and BPL covered by the Targeted PDS at 18.03 crores households. If one goes by the population basis of 2001 (projected from 1991) which is what the central government has been using, this works out to over 90 per cent of the population at that time. But even if one takes the 2010 census figures (of 22 crore households) it works out to about 82 per cent of households covered by the PDS. Thus the provision in the bill of coverage of 75 per cent in rural India and just 50 per cent in urban India means that lakhs of families holding APL cards would lose the benefits they are now entitled and many existing APL card holders would be excluded from  PDS.


The second issue is the shameful reduction in allocations for APL families to just 3 kgs per person or 15 kg for a family of five. This makes a mockery of food security. The aspect of pricing is equally objectionable. At present for the APL the central issue price for wheat is Rs 6.10 a kilo and for rice Rs 8.30 a kilo. Schedule 21 of the bill pegs the price of foodgrains for APL to 50 per cent of  the minimum support price given to farmers for wheat and rice. Instead of a fixed price as at present APL prices are bound to move upwards given the   genuine demand of farmers to raise MSP every year to cover the increased annual costs of inputs. Thus the bill creates a division and possible conflict between consumers and farmers. While the farmers demand a higher MSP, the APL card holders interests lie in lower MSPs.


To sum up, as far as APL sections are concerned their numbers will be reduced, the amount of foodgrain allocations will be cut and the prices will be increased




In the name of reforms in the public distribution systems, the bill makes it mandatory to introduce cash transfers instead of foodgrains.  In Chapter 13 Section 3 (g) it is stated “Introducing scheme for cash transfer to the targeted beneficiaries in lieu of their foodgrain entitlements… in areas and manner to be prescribed by the central government.” State governments are given no choice. If the aim of the bill is to guarantee food security then the only way to do it is through guaranteed food grain allocations otherwise it will make the beneficiary vulnerable to market forces once the government withdraws from public provisioning. Cash transfers can only be a supplement to these allocations to buy other essentials such as milk, vegetables, fruit etc. With urgent competing requirements of cash for a poor family’s survival there is no guarantee that the cash will be used to buy foodgrains and not spent on other emergencies. Instead of being reformed, cash transfers may lead to much more corruption and leakages in the PDS than at present. This is not unlikely given the experience in the working of other schemes such as in the working of the Rural Employment Guarantee Act when even earned wages in cash are pocketed by middlemen. With unbridled inflation in food items including foodgrains, the government cannot guarantee the price at which the foodgrains will be sold therefore the value of the cash transferred may not enable the beneficiary to get the entire entitlement of foodgrains. The bill mandates that the head of the family for purposes of the Act will be an adult woman of the family. This provision is perhaps to meet the earlier criticism on the issue of cash transfers that the male head may use the money for his own interests rather than spend it on food. While it is good that the woman should be considered the head of the family, this will not automatically alter the unequal social relations that exist in a patriarchal set-up which determine the way that money available is spent. But cash transfers will adversely affect not only the food consumers. The entire procurement policy of foodgrains and therefore the protection given to farmers through the MSP will be gravely undermined since there will be no imperative to procure foodgrain . It will also mean the further dismantling of fair price shops, the weakening of the FCI and the domination of the market.


The World Bank's recent report on Social Protection Schemes in India (Social protection for a Changing India Vol 1 Ch 2) states “ The worrying condition of PDS as reported by GOI, national researchers and this report, suggests that a more fundamental reform of the PDS is warranted which would introduce the option of cash transfers….the elements of a transition could be the following: reform would have to start at the procurement end of the system.. this essentially involves a reduction of government controls over grain markets and procurement operations..FCI could compete with private players in the market...” and so on.  The bank advises “In the light of various constraints and given the fundamental nature of such a reform it would be advisable to experiment with a cash-based PDS focusing on more food secure states/districts first.” This is the core of the neo-liberal agenda on food issues and it should surprise no one that the Manmohan Singh government should seek to implement the World Bank blueprint even more directly than the bank itself envisaged.




The second objectionable so-called reform proposed is Clause 3 of the same chapter which says “leveraging aadhaar for unique identification with biometric information of entitled beneficiaries for proper targeting under this Act.” The government argument is that it will (1) cut down on leakages (2) improve targeting (3) facilitate cash transfers. But the main problem of corruption in the PDS is not impersonation which is what the UID addresses, but diversion and leakages to private traders.  The problem of diversion and leakages cannot be solved by the UID. Thus its inclusion in the law is meaningless. Moreover, even before the relevant bill for Adhaar is discussed in parliament and adopted, the government, through the food security bill, wants to not only make it mandatory but make it a condition for accessing rights of food security. There are serious questions about the accuracy of biometric data in the experience of other countries. In India itself a report from 4G Identity Solutions contracted by UIDAI (Unique Identity Authority of India) notes” five per cent of any population has unreadable fingerprints either due to scars, ageing or illegible prints. In the Indian environment experience has shown that the failure to enroll is as high as 15 per cent due to prevalence of population dependent on manual labour.’ As analysed by Prof Ram Kumar of the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, this would mean exclusion of about 200 million people. This is precisely why linking social welfare schemes to Aadhar will become another instrument of exclusion. If a BPL card holder does not have a UID card she will be denied her rights for food security under this section which is clearly unacceptable.


The bill sets up a chain of mechanisms for its implementation starting with a National Food Commission, a State Food Commission as well as a District Grievance Redressal Officer at the district level and vigilance committees at all levels including at the fair price shop. The government seeks to retain control by including in the eligibility qualifications for members of such commissions even serving government officers and civil servants. The expenditures for such mechanisms at the state and district level are to be born by the state government. The state government is also called upon to pay compensation to any beneficiary denied the entitlement the conditions of which are to be decided by the central government under the name of a food security allowance. The maximum penalty for an offender is five thousand rupees, which seems on the low side. There is no provision for prosecution in the bill. On its part the central government is not accountable in case it reneges on its commitment to provide foodgrains on time.




There are some positive features in the Bill including the welcome addition of the mid-day meal scheme in the ambit of the law. Similarly there are good provisions for nutritional guarantees in the form of a cooked meal for pregnant and lactating women including for a mother for six months after child birth. These are universal benefits not linked to BPL/APL categories. Such benefits are to be provided free of cost.  There are other schemes proposed for community kitchens for destitute persons, for migrant workers and special provisions for groups or communities identified as victims of starvation. However the entire payment for all these schemes proposed by the central government will have to be paid for by the state government. The central government will provide the necessary foodgrains not free but at BPL prices. Since the largest number of poor reside in precisely those states where there are very limited resources, expecting the state governments to bear the huge expenditures is totally unjust and unfair. The state governments are more than capable of working out their own such schemes if the central government is prepared to bear a major share of the cost.


Already the Right to Education legislation is facing serious hurdles, one of them being the lack of resources at the state level. The food bill will become a victim to the same lack of resources syndrome if the present framework for expenses is not drastically changed.


The National Food Security Bill 2011 as it is at present will not address the basic issues of food deprivation, hunger, malnutrition and food insecurity among the mass of people. At its crux is the legal sanction to anti-poor methods of poverty (under-)estimation and quotas. By retaining and indeed expanding the targeted system it brings down the number of beneficiaries both in BPL and APL at a time when the price rise of essential commodities is relentless.


The desire of the government to get out of public provisioning and the fiscal conservatism underlying the rejection of a universal PDS and on the contrary the urge to cut entitlements and beneficiaries are the key macroeconomic foundations of this bill. The provisions in the bill that under the name of reform cut even what is currently promised (though seldom given), including the curtailment of the state governments’ powers and ability to design and implement more inclusive and affordable schemes, have to be opposed. A widespread campaign about the actual details of the bill is essential. Only strong public pressure through mass struggle will force a reversal of its anti-people features.