Food Bill is a good beginning

Dr N C Saxena, former Planning Commission secretary, is now an advisor with United Nations Fund for Children (UNICEF). He has expertise on diverse facets of development work. He is also a member of the National Advisory Council (NAC) and one of the two
Commissioners appointed by the Supreme Court on the ‘Right to Food case’. In an interview with ABHIJEET ANAND, he spoke about methodology for identification of the poor, flaws in the food security legislation and implementation of the forest rights Act.

What is the efficacy of Centrally-sponsored schemes aimed at poverty reduction?
Well, it depends on a large number of factors. The design of a programme and to what extent the government monitors the programme or keeps an eye on it. A major factor is the state government&’s own commitment and its delivery mechanism.

Has the Panchayat (Extension to Scheduled Areas) or PESA Act benefited the poor?
No, it has not been implemented, so it has not benefited the poor. State governments have ignored the Act.

Do you think irregularities in the UPA government’s several flagship programmes like the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS) and the Forest Rights Act are fuelling the growth of Naxalism in remote, underdeveloped and tribal areas?
Yes, to some extent. But, it is a very complex problem. The Naxalite problem may be the result of the fact that government schemes are not doing well. The general indifference to remote areas has also contributed to it.

There has been a lot of controversy over the methodology of identifying the poor. Can there ever be consensus on how people are designated ‘below poverty line’?
In fact, there has been no controversy at all. There are two different aspects. The first is, of course, any line that you designate would be arbitrary… whether it is at Rs 20 or Rs 40 (per day). Any line, however, could be helpful, as the purpose is to find out how many people are excluded.
Also, whether poverty is going up or down.
The other aspect is that we cannot identify the poor by the means of consumption. We have to look at various things. Whether they are landless or not? Or, whether their children go to school or not?

Can the socio-economic census throw a clearer light on who must be included in affirmative action categories?
The methodology is flawed, because it does not believe in doing it in a very open manner. They send a surveyor who collects the data in this methodology. The concept is okay. But if the methodology is not correct, it will not throw up correct results.

How will providing unique identification address the issue of poverty?
It can reduce the number of bogus cards. But distributing an Aadhaar card does not identify the poor. That has to be done by the administration. It must include portability so that the poor can draw ration from any fair price shop. Reduction of poverty depends on how the Aadhar card is linked with various programmes.

What do you think about the status of implementation of the Forest Rights Act (FRA) across the country?
The clause of community rights in FRA has been ignored by states, which is unfortunate. By and large, states have not implemented community rights. About 1 million pattas have been distributed by states. Some states have done well in
giving pattas, like Madhya Pradesh and Odisha. But the implementation of community rights has been poor.

What is your take on the proposed National Food Security legislation?
It depends on how it is implemented. Today, we have not identified the poor. We do not know on what basis the poor will be identified. And we also do not know how interstate allocation will be done, since the food security legislation aims at benefiting 67 per cent of the population. The ratio cannot be uniform in all states. It can be more for Bihar and less in Punjab. That ratio has not been decided.
Food security is not linked with Aadhar yet. Therefore, all the issues about food security will remain. It is a good beginning. Sixty-seven per cent people would be given ration. To some extent, the exclusion will become less.

NAC is supposed to be an official interface between the government and civil society. But the recent resignation of Ms Aruna Roy as a member of the NAC indicated that there might be a disconnect between the NAC and the government. Your comments.

NAC is an advisory body, like the economic advisory council. Our job is to give advice. There are many councils and commissions that government sets up for advice. We cannot dictate terms. The elected government has to go by its own wisdom.