India’s development report cards have long been plagued by high incidence of malnutrition, making it an often-cited example of the nation’s growth conundrum. With the country being home to more than one-third of undernourished children, it is evident that the problem underlines the need for a targeted and multi-sectoral approach, with the benefits of the government programmes reaching the farthest first.

The National Food Security Act (NFSA) of 2013 is critical to achieving food security. NFSA aims to nourish two-thirds of the population with subsidised foodgrains through Targeted Public Distribution System (TPDS) under two categories — Antyodaya Anna Yojana (AAY) and Priority Households (PHH). It reinforces Article 47 of the Constitution, which recognises the citizen’s right to enhance their level of nutrition and standard of living.

Criteria modified

As per Section 10 of NFSA, the responsibility for the identification of beneficiaries lies with the States/UT Governments. While the criteria for identifying AAY beneficiaries are already specified in the AAY guidelines, every State/UT is required to evolve criteria for identifying PHH within the determined number. Accordingly, for PHH identification purposes, most of the States/UTs have modified the SECC (Socio-Economic and Caste Census) criteria and have also added certain inclusion/exclusion criteria such as residential vulnerability, age, disabilities and income, among others.

The process of inclusion or exclusion of beneficiaries under the NFSA is an ongoing exercise. During 2014-2021, several initiatives have been taken to improve the access to PDS such as technology-driven PDS reforms, including digitisation of ration cards, de-duplication process, etc.

This has enabled States/UTs to weed out around 42.8 million ineligible/bogus ration cards against which new ration cards are regularly issued by States/UTs within their defined coverage of NFSA.

While many States have already reached their defined coverage limit, some States/UTs, such as Chandigarh, Himachal Pradesh and others are still unable to meet their defined NFSA quota. Hence, out of the total NFSA coverage limit of 813.5 million, nearly 13.2 million remain unutilised. Efficient and equitable implementation of the NFSA would imply that it leaves no eligible beneficiary behind.

However, the different inclusion and exclusion beneficiary identification criteria adopted by the States/UTs have led to ambiguity in the adaptation of terminologies, indicators, and approaches resulting in inclusion-exclusion errors that hampers the national objective of an inclusive food safety net. There are two main reasons:

Same indicator — different definition: The “income/earnings” criterion is used for beneficiary inclusion in 15 States/UTs, while it is used for exclusion in 25 States/UTs. Further, its categorisation depends on the terminology defined by the State. In Bihar, for instance, any HH member earning more than ₹10,000 per month in rural areas are excluded, whereas, in Delhi, any HH with annual income of less than ₹1 lakh is included.

Therefore, the same criterion is being used for exclusion in Bihar and for inclusion in Delhi. Similarly, Andhra Pradesh defines disability as being physically challenged, whereas Madhya Pradesh identifies it as deformity and mental retardation.

Such instances result in eligible beneficiaries enjoying benefits in one State/UT while getting deprived in another, leading to exclusion errors.

Different numbers of indicators being adopted as identification criteria: While some States/UTs have both inclusion and exclusion criteria for identifying PHH, some have either only exclusion or only inclusion criteria to identify PHH beneficiaries. For instance, Maharashtra identifies PHH beneficiaries only based on “income/earnings” criterion resulting in exclusion of vulnerable households that would be eligible based on other indicators such as residential vulnerability, disability, etc. Such variations lead to unequal coverage of vulnerable groups across States/UTs.

The CAG report (2015) on “Preparedness of Implementation of NFSA, 2013” highlighted that most of the implementing States did not identify AAY and PHH beneficiaries as per the provisions of NFSA but used the old database of beneficiaries for extending the benefits and projected themselves as NFSA compliant, resulting in variations.

The CAG report categorises such variation as an indicator of the risk of inclusion and exclusion errors in the identified list of beneficiaries.

Revisiting the criteria

A plausible solution to minimise this inclusion/exclusion error under NFSA could be to adopt standardised criteria with proper definitions across all States/UTs. Section 38 of NFSA permits the Central Government to provide directions to States/UTs from time to time to ensure effective implementation of the Act. Accordingly, the Ministry of Consumer Affairs and Public Distribution may thus develop standardised inclusion and exclusion criteria and their terminology for PHH identification, which shall apply uniformly to all States/UTs.

In addition, revisiting the beneficiary identification criteria would also entail inclusion of vulnerable categories such as illness/debilitating disease, differently-abled people, and so on, and thereby helps in achieving food security for all.

The writer is Associate, NITI Aayog