When the government recently announced that fortified rice would be provided through Public Distribution System (PDS) and PM-POSHAN in three phases by the election-year of 2024, it captured in letter and spirit how the 77-year-long journey of the food security initiative has been guided by good government intent with political interest packaging.
The biggest food security initiative in the world has helped in averting major famines common till 1970s and it provides food security to 810 million people, but it has not been able to provide nutrition security because for decades, foodgrain self-sufficiency – and not nutrition – has been part of the political discourse.
India ranks 101 on the Global Hunger Index 2021 based on indicators like undernourished population and children suffering wasting and stunting. The ranking has been contested by the Indian government.
PDS provides food and non-food-items to identified households having ration cards at subsidised prices. The food basket comprises mostly foodgrains like rice and wheat, which provide calories to beneficiaries, but have not been able to address protein and micronutrient deficiencies, which are prevalent in India. Some of the nutritional deficiencies could be offset to some extent by more focus on promotion of food nutrient dense food items like millets through PDS. The system could also serve better with focus on pregnant and lactating women and children, who are more vulnerable to malnutrition. It is also a bane that the centralised procurement and distribution leads to mismatch between grains provided centrally and local food preferences, which at times include locally grown coarse grains.
Line-managed by central and state governments, PDS is regulated by National Food Security Act, 2013 (NFSA) passed before the then upcoming national elections. NFSA aims to provide food and nutrition security in a life cycle approach. Though the Act provides for price revision every three years, the governments have kept pricing constant at Rs 3 for each kg of rice, Rs 2 for wheat and Re 1 for millet.
NFSA covers other government programmes like the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) scheme, which includes the Supplementary Nutrition Programme (SNP) for offering hot cooked meals to 3-6-years-old children and take-home ration of 600 calories to pregnant women and lactating mothers and Rs 6,000 maternity benefit for at least six months. ICDS along with POSHAN Abhiyaan launched in 2018 were more recently brought under POSHAN 2.0 announced in the Union Budget 2021-22.
The rights-based framework of NFSA gives legal entitlement to subsidised foodgrains to 75 per cent of the rural and 50 per cent of the urban population. The right to food is a justiciable right, but NFSA freezes the number of beneficiaries at the population figures based on the 2011 census. The NFSA does not provide for bringing under PDS purview more people who may have become eligible as a result of growth in population or poverty. The freeze is till the next Census, which was due in 2021, but the enumeration is expected to begin only later this year due to delay caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.
But there is scope to extend the coverage of PDS. It calls for political will. A case in point is in recent times during the Covid-19 lockdown when Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Anna Yojana (PMGKAY) catered to almost 80 crore people over and above NFSA. During the lockdown, the central government provided for more subsidised food rations for ration card holders and some state governments provided rations to even non-ration card holders barring accessibility challenges in some instances due to lockdowns.
It is evident that the existing PDS mechanism is flexible enough to cater to a larger population base and/or deliver more quantity. It also strengthens the argument that universalisation of PDS, which is a long-felt demand of the civil society, is viable from the infrastructure point of view at least.
Political prerogatives have not been exercised only at the national level, but also at state levels. In 1983, NT Rama Rao, the-then chief minister of undivided Andhra Pradesh, announced a rice scheme of Rs 2 per kg rice to fulfil his election promise of the previous year.
Apart from political issues, there are systemic issues in PDS. The procurement of foodgrains is done by the central government at Minimum Support Price (MSP) mostly through the Food Corporation of India (FCI), which is also responsible for the storage. Most of the storage is concentrated in Punjab, Haryana, Andhra Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, and Chhattisgarh, but high consumption states like Rajasthan and Maharashtra are lacking in adequate storage. At the same time, storage is generally underutilised, despite storage limitation in FCI, according a 2013-report of the Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG).
Government procurement has downsides, too. The provision of MSP has led farmers to concentrate on rice and wheat instead of local coarse grains. Rice and wheat cultivation practices being climate-unfriendly have contributed to lowering of water tables and soil fertility, particularly in Punjab and Haryana. Besides, centralised procurement and distribution are accompanied by higher carbon emissions during transportation.
The central allocation of foodgrains for states is based on the availability of foodgrains and a state’s average lifting of food grainsover the last three years. The distribution is done by state governments through fair price shops. The identification of beneficiaries is a cause of concern. According to an earlier study by an expert group, those excluded from the below poverty list (BPL) comprise 61 per cent of the eligible population and include 25 per cent of the ineligible population.
Most of rice and wheat for supply through PDS is procured from Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, and Telengana and distributed through the country. Leakage is an issue. An earlier Planning Commission working group report found 36 per cent leakage of foodgrains at national level in transportation and from ration shops.
Issues of identification of beneficiaries, weeding out of ghost beneficiaries, leakage, transparency and accountability may have been addressed to some extent by the government’s recent measures like digitisation of ration cards and beneficiary data, seeding of Aadhaar in PDS, and automation of fair price shops using electronic Point of Sale (ePoS) devices. Besides, recently-launched One nation, One Ration Card, which is still largely an inter-state initiative, needs to ensure operation of inter-state operability.
The pilots of direct bank transfer into the bank accounts of PDS beneficiaries of Union Territories of Chandigarh, Puducherry, and Dadra & Nagar Haveli need to be tested on a larger scale. Though direct bank transfers can help eliminate leakage and empower people to exercise their choices of food grains, the jury is still out on its benefits in rural areas.
Going forward, it is time to increase the pace of change to make PDS respond to today’s challenges. PDS was introduced by the British as a war-time rationing measure following the Second World War and continued in free India. The Revamped Public Distribution System (RPDS) was introduced in 1992 to improve its reach in remote areas and the Targeted Public Distribution System (TPDS) in 1997 to focus more on the poor.
Repurposing of PDS from the lens of food security to nutrition security is called for with focus on both nutrition-specific and nutrition-sensitive approaches. It would require changes in procurement, storage, transportation, distribution, and more importantly in constituents of food basket. More so because securing human health can also help secure the health of the planet and vice-versa.