The National Food Security Act (NFSA) of 2013 is fundamental in ensuring the Indian population’s right to food. It represents a shift from a welfare-based to a rights-based strategy that provides food security for more than two-thirds of India’s population. Through a well-established Targeted Public Distribution System, NFSA serves up to 50% of India’s urban population and up to 75% of India’s rural population (TPDS). The scope of TPDS operations, which is a shared responsibility of the Central and State/UT Governments, makes it one of the world’s most widespread food aid programmes. “The right to food is a basic right safeguarded under Article 21 of the Constitution.” In July 2013, the Centre adopted the NFSA, which granted the legal right to substantially subsidize food grain to 67% of the population (75% in rural regions and 50% in urban areas). The Act’s coverage is based on Census 2011 population numbers. The NFSA, that is being implemented in all the states and UTs of India affects around 81.35 crore people.

Under the National Food Security Act (NFSA), the Central Government will begin by delivering food grains to 81.35 crore people free of cost on January 01st 2023. The Food Ministry announced on Saturday that all NFSA beneficiaries would receive food starting from January 01st of this year, which would be continued all through the year until December 31st, 2023 and at “zero cost.” According to a Statement, the Central Government would provide a food subsidy of more than INR 2 lakh crores in 2023. General Managers of the Food Corporation of India (FCI) have been mandated to visit three ration shops daily in different parts of their jurisdiction to ensure effective implementation. They are also required to provide a report each day. It was also stated that the scheme would ensure the effective and uniform implementation of the NFSA. Previously, beneficiaries covered by the NFSA had paid a subsidized rate of INR 1-3 per kg until December 31, 2022. They were also receiving free grains as part of the Pradhan Mantri Gareeb Kalyan Anna Yojana (PMGKAY), which was launched in April 2020 to help the poor during the COVID-19 pandemic. However, the PMGKAY, which had been extended several times, will expire on December 31, 2022. Following Cabinet approval, the two food subsidy schemes were merged into the new integrated scheme.

COST IMPLICATIONS

The cost of providing free foodgrains to 81.35 crore people for a year under the National Food Security Act is estimated to be INR 2 lakh crores across the country. Foodgrains were provided at a rate of 5 kg per person per month for priority households (PHH) and 35 kg per family per month for Antodaya Anna Yojna (AAY) families at substantially discounted rates of INR 1, INR 2 and INR 3 per kg for coarse cereals, wheat and rice respectively under the NFSA Act. The supplementary food grain under the PMGKAY, which was implemented during COVID due to financial hardship faced by impoverished people, is no longer required. “The financial situation has now returned to normal. Still, to help the needy, the Government has made food grains available for free under the NFSA.”

Wheat branches growing in the field

The eligible beneficiaries will now receive the 5 kg under the NFSA without having to pay for it, but they will no longer receive the additional 5 kg under the PMGKAY. Their food grain allowance has been cut by half, from 10 kg to 5 kg. For the Government, the PMGKAY saves the full amount it was spending on food grains. It will pay INR 3/kg for rice, INR 2/kg for wheat and INR 1/kg for coarse grain. Even if the government imposes a higher cost of INR 3 per 5 kg of food grain to one person, the total cost will be INR 15 per person. At this rate, the Government’s expenditure for a population comprising of 80 crores amounts to INR 1200 crores. Since the program’s inception in March 2020 (PMGKAY), the Government has spent a total of INR 3.91 lakh crores on food grains. It was INR 1,13,185 crores in 2020-21, INR 1,47,212 crores in 2021-22 and INR 1,30,600 crores in 2022-23, before being discontinued.

ISSUES AND CHALLENGES

To guarantee the effective and consistent implementation of NFSA (Under the new system of giving free rations effective from Jan 01st 2023), the GoI made an imperative decision to combat hunger in the country. However, for food security to be sustainable, two major factors must be taken into account: Population growth and Operational challenges with the PDS.

The new integrated scheme will incorporate two existing food subsidy schemes of the Department of Food and Public Distribution, particularly regarding Food Subsidy to FCI for NFSA and Food Subsidy for decentralized procurement states, which deal with the procurement, allocation and delivery of free food grains to states under NFSA. Free food grains would ensure consistent implementation of portability under the One Nation One Ration Card (ONORC) across the country, while also strengthening this choice-based platform.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, 45 people died of hunger in the country, prompting food activists to march to the streets to demand that the National Food Security Act (NFSA) be properly implemented. Due to the failure of E-PoS-based Biometric Identification and Aadhaar Authentication, some of the eligible beneficiaries under the Act had perished, because they were refused their entitled rations.

India is now the world’s second most populous country behind China, with a population of approximately 1,360 million people. According to a United Nations assessment, India will overtake China by 2028. For the NFSA to be implemented successfully, its impact on the rapidly growing population and its features requires a detailed study. Despite the existence of substantial concerns, a large number of exclusions under the NFSA itself and the deletion of ration cards continue to remain unaddressed. According to data presented by the Centre, two million ration cards were destroyed or revoked in 2021 alone. If data from 2013 is included, the figure jumps to 47.4 million cards. In particular, Uttar Pradesh ranks in cancellation of the most number of cards (17.3 million), followed by West Bengal (6.8 million) and Maharashtra (4.2 million). Furthermore, millions of poor individuals have been barred from obtaining this ration, since the Government has not conducted demographic forecasts for NFSA recipients.

When the NFSA came into force in 2013, it allowed 75% of the rural population and 50% of the urban population to access subsidized food grains. The Act assures coverage for around two-thirds of the population. This is how the figure of 813.5 million people was reached at. This identification was to be based on census population estimations. However, the administration continues to rely on population statistics from the 2011 census. As a result, the present coverage is based on an out-of-date census, which estimated the population to be roughly 1,210 million. According to Government predictions released by the National Commission of Population, Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, India’s population is presently 1,360 million, a 207 million increase from 2011. If this predicted population number is adopted, the 813.5 million NFSA coverage represents just 59% of the entire population, which is less than the NFSA-mandated two-thirds (67%).

Existing PDS are frequently chastised for their urban skew, inclusion and exclusion errors and poor beneficiary targeting. If the NFSA aims to be successful, the most crucial issue is the proper identification of legitimate beneficiaries. A scientific strategy for identifying priority households is a critical step. Due to the complexities involved in the process, identifying homeless persons, state migrants, poor people, tribals and others is a difficult undertaking. It is necessary to issue an authentic document like a smart card (with biometric identification capabilities) or food vouchers as an alternative to ration cards to priority families and identified NFSA beneficiaries.

Procurement, storage, transportation and distribution are the four primary operations involved in the food grain distribution supply chain. Many of the operational challenges related to food grain storage, movement and distribution are the result of state imbalances in food grain production and procurement.

A stock level of around 62 million tonnes is necessary for NFSA implementation (Standing Committee on Food, Consumer Affairs and Public Distribution, 2013). Inadequate FCI storage capacity leads to overburdening of state government agencies’ capabilities, increased storage and penalty rates and substantial food grain waste, due to open storage. Many states lack enough storage capacity to meet the demand for food grains over two months. Another difficulty with food grain storage and management is the waste of outdated food grains, due to non-compliance with the first-in-first-out (FIFO) concept. Promoting initiatives for the development of effective and economically feasible storage solutions via the use of advanced technologies and an increase in the storage capacity by creating silos, a cold storage network and indigenous food grain storage systems can play a pivotal role in the successful implementation of NFSA.

Instances of low grain quality compel individuals to frequently remark that the quality of the food grains is subpar and that the grains may sometimes be supplemented with other grains to be edible. There have also been complaints that the grains include non-food items such as stones, bird and rodent droppings, extraneous matter and a moist and pungent smell.

Education and training are constant processes and their importance to the NFSA’s success cannot be overstated. For the NFSA to be implemented successfully, all stakeholders in the food grain supply chain, from farmers to beneficiaries, must undergo education and training on all facets of the Act. Operational inefficiencies in procurement systems, food grain handling, storage and distribution may be addressed by implementing targeted educational programmes with specific aims and providing training to concerned stakeholders on the use of Information and Communication Technologies.

A considerable number of PDS beneficiaries are illiterate and may be unable to read the information on the display board. As a result, information about the new scheme of getting free ration under PDS may be disseminated in communities on a routine basis through awareness campaigns undertaken by various local-level CSOs/NGOs and government agencies. Another issue is the beneficiaries’ lack of knowledge about their entitlement. At all FPSs, information boards with accurate information regarding entitlement, food grain availability and stock position should be maintained. Beneficiaries must be able to easily understand information published in their native language. A mass education and training programme for consumer awareness on the legal aspects of the Act, as well as problems related to food security, diet, nutrition and health may suffice to meet the NFSA’s objectives.

All States’ Grievance Redressal Mechanisms must be overhauled promptly. Each State’s Department of Food should establish a Grievance Redressal Cell and designate a Grievance Redressal Officer as the nodal person.

Conclusion

India’s G20 presidency brings a historic possibility to exchange its success story of becoming a food surplus nation in times of crisis through exports, as well as address current global food security problems. Global wars, climate change, a growing global population, rising food costs and an unstable economy are all current global challenges. India is looking forward to combating poverty and the food crisis during its G20 presidency. It focuses on global food security and nutrition, climate-smart agriculture, the development of inclusive value chains and food systems and the agricultural digital revolution. Even in times of stability, having access to adequate food and health care is critical. Access to inexpensive and safe food and health care, pandemic or not, should not be a source of concern for any segment of the population. Free food grains would ensure consistent implementation of portability under One Nation One Ration Card (ONORC) across the country, while also strengthening this choice-based platform.

Note: (The Opinions expressed by the Author in this article are based on a review of secondary data available & research carried out by researchers, It has nothing to do with the organization he works for).

About the Authors:

Aamir Manan & Arpita Khare

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An editor by day & dreamer at night; passionately involved with both print and digital media; Pet lover; Solo traveller.

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