Securing food

The ambitious proposal to implement the food security law has gained momentum with the Centre-state meeting on the revamping of the public distribution system and the receipt of the National Advisory Council’s recommendations in this regard. They have drawn attention to the problems in the implementation of the idea of meeting the minimum food and nutritional requirements of the poor in the country. It is being pushed as the flagship social security programme of UPA-II. The NAC, headed by UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi, is in charge of the programme. It has in its last meeting decided to start implementation of the programme in one-fourth of the country’s poorest blocks, possibly by April next year. A modest start is better than a beginning with a bang in the case of an ambitious programme, because it is necessary to sustain it over a long period.

The plan is to provide 35 kg of rice or wheat to the country’s below poverty line (BPL) population at Rs 3 per kg. It has been found that the present quantum of food production in the country may not be able to support the demand for grains that the food security plan would create even on conservative estimates of the BPL population. The large-scale wastage of procured foodgrains is another problem, with lakhs of tonnes disappearing or rotting away because of inefficient or lack of storage. Food output has to be increased and procurement and storage of foodgrains improved if the programme is to cover the entire the country.  Schemes for these should also be launched as part of the food security programme. In the short term, the success of the programme would depend on the efficiency of the public distribution system. Though proposals for food coupons or a UIDAI-based cash transfer system are all being discussed, at present a mostly dysfunctional PDS will be the vehicle for implementation of the food security programme.

The food secretaries’ meeting decided to take a number of steps to revamp the PDS, including the launch of a smart card project on a pilot basis in Haryana. The meeting also decided to computerise PDS operations, ensure timely delivery of stocks to outlets and start a plan to identify potential beneficiaries. If the problems of bogus rations cards, diversion of foodgrains and other ills of the PDS are not immediately resolved, the food security programme cannot effectively take off.

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