NFSA – Food for thought

The public uproar against the National Food Security Act is the hot news in currency for the past one or two weeks in the troubled Kashmir.
NFSA – Food for thought
Representational Pic

The public uproar against the National Food Security Act is the hot news in currency for the past one or two weeks in the troubled Kashmir. Is the act really such a bad piece of legislation that it has evoked condemnation from even the separatists who otherwise shy away from raking up issues they perceive "civil" in character?

One thing is clear. The alacrity with which the state government sought to spread out the process for its implementation made the things only more egregious.  That in the cacophony of public opprobrium, the state government itself was confused is evidenced by the fact that while in one breath its ministers termed the rolling out of the law in the state as the "biggest achievement" of PDP-BJP coalition, in another breath they accused the erstwhile National Conference-Congress government for bringing this law to the state. In the face of stiff street resistance to the act, the PDP government's predicament was manifest— it wanted to have its cake and eat it too.  

The National Conference on the other hand made every effort – and succeeded too to a great deal— to come out "unscathed" in this controversy.  In order to strike a positive chord with the street voice, NC working president and former chief minister Omar Abdullah tactfully and politically outwitted both the PDP as well as the NC's former alliance partner, the Congress. He made us to believe that despite the Congress pressure, the NC had opposed the food law though without explaining to the people was it worth opposing either.

The question again remains: Is the law really as nasty as could not be palatable to the street?  Or is it that in the raging controversy what went unnoticed was some of the wonderful features of NFSA that if presented in a fair manner before the people might have won plaudits for the introducers.

The two major reasons for which the act is being opposed tooth and nail in Kashmir are: A huge chunk of people are left out of the scheme and secondly there will be reduction in the ration quota under the act in respect of some consumers who as per the policy in vogue are getting 35 kg/family.

But both the provisions in the act seem to be reasonable. The reduction in the ration quota has more to do with the average family size (particularly in Srinagar district). The less the family size, the less the amount of subsidized ration you will be entitled to and vice-versa.

Likewise,  most of the people left out comprise persons with income of more than Rs 25 lakh per annum, persons holding constitutional positions including ministers, legislators, employees of the state and the central government in gazetted cadre and persons owing more than 80 kanal of the land individually or 20 kanals of land in joint family.  Why should those persons be at all given any subsidy? Giving them subsidy is unreasonable and is tantamount to impinging upon the rights of the poor who deserve to receive the subsidy.

Amid "bad" PR exercise by the PDP in this regard what went unnoticed was some of the wonderful features of the NFSA 2013, whose basic objective is to "provide food and nutritional security in human life cycle approach by ensuring access to adequate quantity of quality food at affordable prices to people." 

Perhaps our public information mandarins forgot to tell us that the act has a special focus on the nutritional support to women and children.  The act provides "meal to pregnant women and lactating mothers during pregnancy and six months after the child birth, such women will also be entitled to receive maternity benefit of not less than Rs. 6,000. Children up to 14 years of age will be entitled to nutritious meals as per the prescribed nutritional standards. In case of non-supply of entitled foodgrains or meals, the beneficiaries will receive food security allowance."

And the most outstanding feature of the act is that it provides for setting up of grievance redressal mechanism at the district and state levels. Our PDS which has been marred by corruption and leakages would be replaced by a system that has separate provisions for ensuring transparency and accountability. According to some estimates in the PDS delivery around 51 per cent of the food delivered is lost to leakages. It is sold on the open market for a higher price.

Yes, our concern is that the act provides for coverage of only up to 75 per cent of the rural population and only up to 50 per cent of the urban population for receiving subsidized foodgrains under Targeted Public Distribution System (TPDS). The state, if really mandated, could expand its coverage. None can stop the state to devise a separate system running parallel to the regime under the act to plug the holes wherever found. It can raise the 5 kg foodgrains per person per month quota at subsidised prices to 6 kg.

Despite the positives in the bill, it does not mean there are no negatives. One of the concerns is that the food grains will be distributed through the already existing PDS (Public Distribution System), which has many loopholes. The government would have to ensure that the leakages in the system are plugged and quality of the food grains is improved. It also needs to check the corruption in the system.

There is also need for softening the criteria so that the number of poor is calculated correctly. A single reasonable yardstick needs to be adopted to reach the correct number of poor in the state. The act provides that it shall be the responsibility of every state government to create and maintain scientific storage sites; suitably strengthen capacities of their Food and Civil Supplies; and establish institutionalised licensing for FPS (fair price shops). The state while implementing the law needs to focus more on these provisions.

Since long we needed a legislation to provide food for needy. Let this legislation in real sense prove to be that.

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