There is a Spanish proverb that “the belly rules the mind”. The hungry are left with three unacceptable options – they spark food riots, they emigrate or they die. Indeed, a hungry state is a failed state. India presents the worst statistics on terms of hunger though as per the latest Global Hunger Index (GHI) Report 2015, the country has been able to improve its position from 63 to 55. However, eradicating hunger through food security for all still remains a distant dream. Around 190 million people in the country go to bed hungry each day.

According to the National Family Health Survey – 4 (NFHS-4) figures, 29 per cent of the children under five are underweight and 32 per cent are stunted. An estimated 24 per cent of child mortality (under 5) are reported in India. The problem is not one of availability of food, but of accessibility. In the words of Amartya Sen: ‘Starvation is the characteristic of some people not having enough food to eat. It is not the characteristic of there being not enough food to eat’.

In India, the Public Distribution System, a product of both political will and economic exigency, is acknowledged as a mechanism for catering to the needs of the under-privileged. It provides highly subsidised food and fuel to a large number of people. Affordable food is a source of sustenance for a large section of the population; affordable fuel (kerosene) is used for cooking and lighting by the poor. However, the PDS has not worked effectively enough not for lack of good intentions but because of inadequate attention to the delivery mechanism. It has been widely criticised for mis-targeting, wrongful exclusion and inclusion, unavailability and poor quality of commodities, chronic corruption and failure to deliver benefits in a systematic manner.

Till 1992, PDS was ‘semi-universal’. Given the poverty-alleviation mandate of the programme and high transaction costs of subsidising those above the poverty line, the scheme was modified, first in 1992 into the ‘Revamped PDS’ (all in geographically poor areas) and then, in 1997, into the ‘Targeted PDS’ (all poor in all areas). Under the TPDS, households are classified in accord with the socio-economic parameters and provided with ration cards on this basis. Originally, the changes implemented through TPDS classified households into APL and BPL groups. Since 2001, additional subsidies have been extended to the poorest of the poor families, under the Antyodaya Anna Yojana (AAY), which is rooted in the Gandhian concept – ‘Antyodaya’ literally means development of the ‘last persons’ in society. Through TPDS around three crore ration cardholders categorised as APL, BPL and AAY beneficiaries are provided subsidised foodgrain. In fact, the TPDS equipped with around half-a-million government- licensed Fair Price Shops (FPSs) is the largest distribution network of its kind in the world.

The switchover from comprehensive PDS to TPDS happened at a time when the central government was anxious to reduce the burden of food subsidy, even through the subsidy bill did not go above one per cent of the GDP. The TPDS was severely criticised by left-wing intellectuals. The officially accepted poverty line and the list of the poor thus identified generated a political controversy. Even the Programme Evaluation Organisation (PEO) of the Planning Commission in its report, Performance Evaluation of TPDS – 2005, admitted: ‘The implementation of TPDS is plagued by large Errors of Exclusion (of BPL families) and Inclusion (of APL), and by the prevalence of ghost BPL cards.’ In West Bengal, for example, the selection of the BPL list was blotted with 31.74 per cent “exclusion error”, which was the third highest in the country. In his submission before the Supreme Court Justice DP Wadhwa, the Chairman of the Central Vigilance Committee on PDS, admitted that a large section of the population who are marginally above the official poverty line are dismally poor. The Wadhwa Committee referred to this group as ‘Marginally Above Poverty Line (MAPL)’ and advocated extra allocation of foodgrains for MAPL under TPDS.  The Centre temporarily allocated extra food grain accordingly but without any long-term effect on food security. However, the evaluation findings of the PEO clearly suggested that the transition from PDS to TPDS has neither benefited the poor, nor helped reduce budgetary food subsidies in the desired manner.

In August 2013, the National Food Security Bill (NFSB) was passed by both Houses of Parliament, marking a paradigm shift in addressing the problem of food security – from the welfare approach to a right-based approach. The National Food Security Act 2013 (NFSA), notified on 10 September 2013, increases the convergence of TPDS and converts various existing food security programmes of the Government of India into enforceable and justifiable entitlements, such as the Mid-Day Meal Scheme (MDMS) for children in schools up to the elementary level, the Integrated Child Development Scheme (ICDS) for children in the age group 0-6 as well as pregnant and lactating mothers, and the much maligned staple of the Indian polity – the PDS. It guarantees every person belonging to ‘eligible household’ five kg of foodgrain every month at highly subsidised rates Rs.1/2/3 per kg millets/wheat/rice. Under the current AAY Scheme the poorest household is entitled to thirty-five kg of foodgrain per month at the same prices. Though the Act itself does not specify the eligibility criteria, it does specify the mandatory coverage of PDS – 75 per cent in rural areas and 50 per cent in urban areas at the national level, to be adjusted state-wise by the central government. The Centre has evaded what would have been a contentious issue by passing the responsibility for identification of the target group to the states. The states have been made fully responsible for determining the eligibility criteria. They can expend additional resources to widen the coverage, the entitlement level and range of commodities offered to beneficiaries.

In West Bengal, the NFSA has been enforced as ‘Khadya Sathi’ project from 27 January this year. Going by the commitment of the government, AAY households will get 35 kg of foodgrains (rice and wheat) per month at the rate of Rs.2 per kg. Priority Householder (PHH), Specially Priority Householders (SPHH) and Rajya Khadya Surakhya Yojana-1 (RKSY-1) cardholders will get  five kg of foodgrain per head per month at the subsidised price. Nearly 7 crore people of West Bengal will get foodgrains at Rs.2 per kg.

Protests over erroneous identification of beneficiaries and distribution of defective digital cards are spreading from one district to another. The list of beneficiaries published under NFSA appears to have excluded a substantial number of cardholders who used to get BPL and AAY benefits.. Subsequently, to clear the confusion over beneficiaries, the Chief Minister announced that all 9.2 crore people of Bengal would be eligible for subsidised rice. With the available resources and infrastructure, execution of the ‘Please all’ PDS appears to a herculean task.

Leakage remains a major problem. Highly subsidised foodgrain, earmarked for the poor, gets pilfered or sold in the open market. The system works like cash transfers. Arguably, if the subsidy is handed over directly to the beneficiaries, it is certain to reach them. To rise above the rhetoric of the opponents of direct cash transfers that the cash would be spent on liquor, we need to look at the consumption patterns of different economic classes. It would be a giant step and go a long way in alleviating poverty. As Amartya Sen once remarked: ‘Starvation, clearly, is the most telling aspect of poverty’.