A year after the Centre tabled a National Food Security Bill, on December 21, the Chhattisgarh Government enacted the Chhattisgarh Food Security Act (CFSA) which, in some ways, is better than the Centre’s Bill.

The CFSA covers the public distribution system, school meals, anganwadis (including take-home rations for pregnant/lactating women and children under three) and free meals for the destitute and homeless. It excludes 10 per cent of households from the PDS.

The rest are divided into three groups: Antyodaya, Priority and General. Unlike the Central Bill, the size of these groups has not been capped artificially.

Antyodaya and priority households get 35 kg of grain at Rs 1-2/kg. Taking a cue from States such as Tamil Nadu, Andhra and Himachal Pradesh, the CFSA guarantees 2 kg of pulses at Rs 5-10/kg, an essential source of protein.

Notable features of the CFSA include: One, sensible use of technology (for example, full computerisation of PDS); two, greater transparency (public scrutiny of all records) and three, strengthening accountability (public institutions such as Gram Panchayats have priority in running ration outlets).

These reforms, in place since 2004 in Chhattisgarh, have yielded good results: Estimated diversion of PDS grain fell from half in 2004-05 to 10 per cent in 2009-10.

The CFSA comes at a time when the Centre appears on the verge of reneging on its promise of a National Food Security Act in favour of cash transfers. Doublespeak and confusion on the issue abound: While the Food Minister stated in Parliament that the failed Kotkasim kerosene cash transfer model will be applied to food in six Union Territories and Puducherry, other senior Congress leaders continue to deny this.

The benefits of computerisation (enhanced administrative capacity, better accounting) and banking (protection from corruption) are being marketed as the “magic” of aadhar. An impression is being created, perhaps unintentionally, that aadhar will create eligibility for welfare benefits.

In fact, today, aadhar is neither necessary nor sufficient for any government benefits. From January, it will become necessary for some benefits, without being sufficient.

Setting aside political considerations, there is a strong case for such an Act: Economic and food security.

In Tamil Nadu, 60 per cent of the “poverty gap” has been wiped out due to implicit transfers through the PDS; the figure for Chhattisgarh is 40 per cent and nearly 20 per cent at the all-India level.

The case against cash-for-food is equally strong: Poorly developed banking infrastructure and markets in rural areas, inflationary pressures and so on.

The Chhattisgarh Government has other faults, but this is one lesson to learn from it.

(The author teaches economics at IIT Delhi and is currently on a fellowship at the Institute of Economic Growth, Delhi.)

(This article was published on December 28, 2012)
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