A National Food Security Act, modeled along the lines of NREGA, is going to be endorsed as per the Indian National Congress manifesto 2009. As per this Act, the most vulnerable sections of society will have a legally enforceable right to food that guarantees sufficient food for them. Thus, every family living below the poverty line either in rural or urban areas will be entitled, by law, to 25 kgs of rice or wheat per month at Rs 3 per kg. Not only this, government has even promised to set up subsidized community kitchens for the homeless and migrants. This scheme would be a major challenge for the government. Because, several national programmes are already on-going in the country to handle food security , but still according to the recently released Global Hunger Index 2008, India ranked 66 among 88 developing countries–worse than nearly 25 Sub-Saharan African countries and all of South Asia, except Bangladesh. May be this Act can ensure food for all and also help in meeting the MDG target.
On similar lines of Food Security Act, the most wide-spread prevalent programme is the Public Distribution System which later became Targeted PDS. Under this system, central government procures foodgrains to benefit the people living below poverty line (BPL). Procurement of foodgrains is one of the essential aspects of the food security policy of the Government of India in order to protect vulnerable sections of society against price volatility; it also provides price security to the farmers, which induces them to sustain production levels. But the major weakness of the system is poor targeting of the beneficiaries. Number of studies says that there have been large scale errors in the identification of BPL families. These miss-targeting causes actual poor families to get deprived of their entitlement and as a consequence food gets diverted to non-poor (non-target) section. Will this Food security act also end up with the same fate?
Another hindrance in fulfilling the objective of the food security act can be lack of food availability. Government is considering removing ban on exporting wheat and rice (non-basmati rice) on the one hand and at the same time ensuring food security to all under the enacted Food Security Act. With the implementation of this act, it is expected that demand for rice and wheat will go up and easing these exports will cause supply crunch and intensify upward pressure on the prices. It has been recommended that in order to meet the needs of the Food Security Act, there has be adequate amount of food grains reserves in government depots and therefore no easing of exports. In the alternative, a larger budgetary provision will have to be made for foodgrains procurement.
In 2008-09, FCI godowns had been over-flowing with 22 million tonnes of wheat, almost double what they have procured last year and double the buffer norm of 11 million tonnes. In 2007-08, wheat procurement stood at over 11 million tonnes and 17 million tonnes of rice as against total wheat output of 78.40 million tonnes and 96 millions tonnes that of rice output. Wheat procurement accounts for around 14 per cent of the total wheat output and that of rice registered around 18 per cent of its output (Fig 1). Figure 1 clearly portrays that government procurement for Public Distribution System and other schemes is quite low in comparison with the production level of foodgrains.
Source: Agriculture Statistics at a Glance, 2008 and Economic Survey, 2007-08
Note: rice procurement for the period 1997-98 to 2002-03 are from Oct-Sep, for 2003-04 to 2006-07 are annual figures and 2007-08 pertains toApril-Dec period
Whether Food Security Act will be a success is a big question mark. On the one hand it seems yes, because of the lower price offer than what Public Distribution System does (35 kg ration at Rs 4.15 per kg for wheat and Rs 5.65 per kg for rice) and the present overflowing wheat stock with FCI, gives a positive signal. But on the other hand, knowing the fact that Food Security Act is more or less based on equally ineffective Public Distribution System, there is a dire need to correct the method of targeting BPL population. The entitlement decisions are generally taken by the local administration (Gram Panchayats or Block Development officers). It is impossible to know whether the actual entitled person has issued card unless proper monitoring of the system is there. To keep a check on this, cross checking of identification should be introduced and should be made mandatory. A stable procurement policy along with effective minimum support price has to be restructured. Therefore, to ensure long-term commitment under the Food Security Act, these problems need to be corrected first. Also, government should keep in mind that if it lifts the ban on exports of non-basmati rice, it might adversely affect the very purpose of food security in the country and the dream of feeding the hungry will remain a dream only.