Universal PDS, a distant dream

Universal PDS, a distant dream

Even as the Lokayukta has submitted a report to the sate government stating that there has been a leakage of Rs.1,738 crore per annum in the PDS in Karnataka alone (which amount is more than sufficient to universalise the PDS here) the NFSB does not universalise the PDS, but continues the problematic division between ‘BPL’ and ‘APL’ households by merely re-naming them as ‘priority’ and ‘general’ households.

Even before the BPL census currently underway has been completed, the bill has already set caps on the numbers of those who can be categorised as ‘priority’ and ‘general’ households. Of the total population, up to 75 per cent in rural and 50 per cent in urban areas would be covered under the PDS.  Of these, only 46 per cent in rural and 28 per cent in urban areas can be ‘priority’ households. Jean Dreze says that the way forward is not to “fix the poverty numbers” but to give up this “bankrupt approach of BPL targeting” and go in for universal entitlement.

No nutritional basis

While ‘priority’ households will pay prices not exceeding Rs. 3/2/1  per kg of rice, wheat and millets respectively, ‘general’ households will pay about 50 per cent of the minimum support price paid to farmers. Thus as minimum support prices rise, costs for ‘general’ households will also rise. The ICMR norms say a moderately active male requires 14 kg of cereals, 800 grams of oil and 1.5 kg of pulses per month. But though the bill claims to provide nutrition security, ‘priority’ households are to be given only 7 kg and ‘general’ households a mere 3 kg of food grains/person/month. These amounts have no nutritional basis. A saving grace is that individual entitlements for every person in a household seem to have been accepted and the discredited cap of a ceiling on household entitlement given up.

The aam aadmi knows that millions, including children, eat watery dal, do not eat fruits nor drink any milk. These too are items not provided by the PDS but are necessary for nutritional security. 45 per cent fruits and vegetables rot in the country.  The bill has not spared any thought on how to get these valuable foods into children’s stomachs instead of ploughing them back into the soil.

In contrast to the tokenistic NFSB, the National Nutrition Policy (NNP) passed in 1993 makes the clear-cut statement, “Our food policy should be consistent with our national nutritional needs”. It calls for a holistic and integrated approach for implementing the NNP through close collaboration between the food, agriculture, health, education, labour, rural development and other ministries as each complements the other. 

This would ensure that nutritional security is looked at from end to end – from the production, procurement, storage and distribution of food to its accessibility, availability and affordability by citizens.  Each concerned Central ministry is supposed to implement the measures for which it has direct or nodal responsibility to ensure nutritional security. For the food department, the NNP stipulates that the PDS should ensure availability of coarse grains, pulses, sugar and oil, besides rice and wheat at reasonable prices.

To oversee the implementation of the NNP, a working group in each concerned ministry, an inter-ministerial co-ordination committee, a nutrition council, etc., are to be set up and also replicated at the state level. How, despite these several institutional mechanisms to enable review of policies of various departments to ensure nutritional security, could the food ministry come up with a NFSB that violates and is not in consonance with the NNP? In fact, the NFSB should be the vehicle to provide a legal status to the holistic and end-to-end approach of ensuring nutritional security articulated in the NNP.

As for the arguments that there is no money to universalise the PDS, the Right to Food Campaign estimates that Rs 1,56 lakh crore would be required for a universal PDS which is about a third of the tax exemptions given by the Central government to corporates in 2009-10.

(The writer is connected with the Right to Food Campaign-Karnataka)

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