PUCL Petition An Opportunity To Scrutinise Food Security Law
Almost two years after it came into effect, many states have to still implement the Food Security Act of the UPA.
Even those who are ideologically opposed to the National Food Security Act (NFSA) should welcome the People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) petition in the Supreme Court over the delay in its implementation. What this will do is show up three things: one, the continued shilly-shallying by state governments on implementation; two, double standards among political parties who profess undying support for the NFSA but are not able to get state governments ruled by them to implement it; three, that there is nothing in the Act to penalise states for non-implementation.
To recap, the food security law came into existence first as an ordinance on 5 July 2013 during the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government’s tenure. States were given one year’s time to implement it. By 5 July 2014, only 11 states had done so and the rest petitioned the present government to extend the deadline by three months. When that deadline neared, states again put pressure on the centre and the deadline was extended by six months and after that by another three months. The latest deadline ends on 30 September. And the number of NFSA-compliant states remains 11. These are: Haryana, Rajasthan, Delhi, Himachal Pradesh, Bihar, Punjab, Karnataka, Chhattisgarh, Maharashtra, Chandigarh and Madhya Pradesh. West Bengal is expected to join the club soon, though.
When questioned about this at a press conference on Monday, food and consumer affairs minister, Ram Vilas Paswan said that his ministry keeps sending reminders to states and while none, except Tamil Nadu, refuses to implement the Act, they keep asking for more time (Tamil Nadu has always opposed the NFSA, saying its own cheap rice scheme was far better). The delay on the part of Andhra Pradesh and Telengana has to do with the uncertainty over bifurcation when the Act was passed.
There are nine things states have to do before being eligible to get foodgrains under the NFSA, the most important of which are identification of beneficiaries in a transparent manner and cleaning up the database (weeding out ineligible people and duplicate names), doorstep delivery of foodgrains to ration shops and strengthening the public distribution system (PDS) through end-to-end computerisation to prevent leakages and theft. The central government was earlier bearing half the cost of end-to-end computerisation of all PDS operations. It is now picking up half the tab for doorstep delivery as well as commission to ration shops. But still states have been dragging their feet.
The PUCL has gone to court against these repeated extensions through administrative orders, saying this should be done only through an amendment. Legislative niceties apart, the fact remains that though the NFSA is a central law, the implementation lies in the realm of the states and barring these 11 and Tamil Nadu, none have readied themselves to do this.
To be fair, though the Congress may be ruling in only two of the NFSA-compliant states – Himachal Pradesh and Karnataka – credit for implementation in three other states (Haryana, Maharashtra and Delhi) must go to it since the change of regimes in these happened after the states had already implemented the law. The question then arises, if five Congress governments could implement the NFSA within the first year of its passage, why haven’t the others been able to do so, even though it is the pet project of the party president and vice-president? And why hasn’t the party leadership been able to force them to do so?
That question should also apply to the CPM, another ardent champion of the Act; the party has been in power in Tripura (another procrastinating state) since 1998.
The complaint by state governments about the huge challenge of computerisation is really a euphemism for not being able to weed out bogus names from the list of beneficiaries, a humungous problem in quite a few states. A former food ministry official once told this writer, “administratively this is not a major issue, it can be done; what is needed is political will to do it.”
Paswan quoted the example of Bihar (a NFSA-compliant state) where the number of beneficiaries is capped at a little over 8 crore. The state government was getting foodgrains for 7.6 crore people. However, it had verified details of only 75 lakh ration card holders. The state is now working overtime to address this problem. West Bengal has put up verified details for three districts and is getting foodgrains supplies under NFSA for these.
There is no provision in the NFSA for the centre to penalise states that have not implemented the NFSA. The only stick it has is to not give them foodgrains at NFSA rates – Rs 3 per kg for rice, Rs 2 for wheat and Re 1 for coarse grains. So the states have to pay the existing targeted public distribution system (TPDS) rates of Rs 5.85 a kg for rice, Rs 4.15 for wheat and Rs 3 for coarse grains, which means the genuine beneficiaries pay more for the tardiness of the state governments.
Since even this was not very effective in getting the states to fall in line, the food ministry is trying another lever. Apart from the TPDS quota, states also get an additional quota for below poverty line (BPL) and above poverty line (APL) consumers. Both are given for the full year. Now the ministry is giving the additional quota in instalments; it has released this till only September (when the NFSA deadline ends) in the hope that states will become NFSA compliant by then.
But can the centre deny the additional quota if states do not comply? That is a politically volatile issue. One non-compliant north-eastern state has already been demanding that the condition about the beneficiary database be dropped entirely. If this is done it will be a huge body blow to the attempt to reform the PDS, the reason why the UPA put these conditions in the Act in the first place.
Whatever drove the filing of the PUCL petition, there is no denying that it will put the spotlight on the problems dogging the NFSA and the likely solutions. It certainly should lead to the proper identification of beneficiaries and weeding out of ineligible people and bogus ration card holders. Even the votaries of cash transfers over PDS will have to admit that this is a necessary first step (though the PUCL may well be aghast at the likely future fallout of their petition) to move to this mode. All eyes on the Supreme Court now.
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