According to the latest Global Hunger Report, India continues to be in the category of those nations where hunger is "alarming".
Despite the President's declaration in Parliament on June 4, 2009 that a National Food Security Act would be formulated, it took the central government more than four years to bring it through an ordinance. From a date to be notified by the government, two-thirds of all households, as opposed to only one-third right now, will be entitled to cheap cereals.
Of these, the most important challenge is to decide the interstate allocation of foodgrain for the Public Distribution System (PDS). At present, this allocation is arbitrary and is neither based on population nor poverty. Thus, poorer states like Uttar Pradesh (UP) and Bihar get much less food allotment than their share in poverty, whereas, it is just the opposite for the Southern states. This is why Tamil Nadu is opposing the Bill.
Secondly, actual distribution cannot begin unless the eligible households are identified. The final results of the Socio-Economic and Caste Census will not be available for all the states, especially the larger states like UP, Bihar and Tamil Nadu, until the beginning of 2014. Further, there has been a lot of secrecy in conducting the survey, and people even in states like Haryana, where the lists on paper have been shared with the people and finalised, no one knows whether he/she is in or out. There could be a great deal of disenchantment and anger when the actual distribution of grain begins.
In order to meet the increased requirement of foodgrain for PDS, export of cereals should be stopped immediately. If basmati rice is to be exported, an equal amount of ordinary rice must be imported. It is highly unethical to export foodgrain when our own people are dying of starvation.
The Bill encourages states to reform the PDS, including doorstep delivery of foodgrain, end-to-end computerisation; and leveraging "Aadhaar" (UID) for unique identification of entitled beneficiaries. The progress is extremely slow, though not in all states. Chhattisgarh, Orissa, Himachal Pradesh, and Rajasthan have undertaken state-level reforms by extending coverage, improving delivery and increasing transparency.
The UID programme will certainly help eliminate duplicate and fake beneficiaries from the PDS rolls. Another advantage with the UID is making PDS entitlements portable, as beneficiaries would be able to withdraw their entitlements from any ration shop in the state. However, large-scale substitution of PDS by direct cash transfers (DCT) is not feasible, as foodgrain bought from the farmers through the minimum support price mechanism need an outlet for distribution. Besides, DCT needs a good banking structure, a functional registration system and widespread use of debit cards. At best, it could be tried on a pilot basis in a few poor localities in metropolitan cities.
Lastly, the Central government should discourage the distribution of manufactured "ready-to-eat" food under the Integrated Child Development Scheme (ICDS) since it leads to grand corruption at the ministerial level. Unfortunately, the government has encouraged such tendering by laying down the minimum nutritional norms for take-home rations, including micronutrient fortification, thus providing a dangerous foothold for food manufacturers and contractors, who are constantly trying to invade child nutrition programmes for profit-making purposes.
A recent evaluation of the ICDS in Gorakhpur by the National Human Rights Commission showed that despite Supreme Court orders to provide hot, cooked meals, all centres supplied only packaged ready-to-eat food, which had only 100 calories against a norm of 500 calories, and 63 per cent of food and funds were misappropriated. Being unpalatable, half the food ends up as cattle feed. However, such reports, though few, are never discussed in state Assemblies, as they now meet for less than 30 days a year. We need a new law making it compulsory for the Parliament and Assemblies to meet for at least 150 days a year.
The ICDS should learn from the success of the hot, freshly cooked mid-day meals programme that runs fairly well even in states not known for efficiency, whereas, the supply of packaged food in the ICDS even in Maharashtra and Karnataka is not popular with the children, besides encouraging corruption and discouraging local participation.