Eastern India In A Make-or-Break Battle Against Hunger
14 June, 2016
Eastern India, the world capital of malnutrition, has reached a make-or-break point in the battle against hunger. For the first time, the National Food Security Act (NFSA) makes it possible to ensure that no-one sleeps on an empty stomach. Many people, however, are still struggling to secure their entitlements under the Act. By way of reality check, a careful survey of NFSA was recently completed by student volunteers in six of India’s poorest states. The survey is due to conclude on 13-14 June with a series of public hearings, where the people concerned will have a chance to speak for themselves.
Public hearings on the National Food Security Act (NFSA) will be taking place on 13-14 June 2016 in six of India’s poorest states: Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Odisha and West Bengal. We are hoping that these hearings, and the careful survey that preceded them, will shed light on the achievement and failures of NFSA in these states.
The National Food Security Act
The NFSA creates three sets of entitlements: (1) subsidized food from the Public Distribution System (PDS); (2) nutritious midday meals for children at schools and anganwadis; (3) universal maternity entitlements (Rs 6,000 per child). The public hearings focus specifically on PDS entitlements: 5 kg of foodgrains per person per month for “Priority” households and 35 kg per month for “Antyodaya” households, with a national coverage of 75% in rural areas (rising to 80-85% in the poorest states).
The NFSA was passed in 2013, but implementation has been tardy in many states. In five of the six survey states, the NFSA was rolled out sometime during the last two years. The sixth state, Chhattisgarh, enacted its own food security act in December 2012 and implemented it without delay.
Identification of eligible households
One of the biggest challenges in implementing the Act is the identification of “eligible” households (Priority and Antyodaya). This is the responsibility of state governments. Most of them use simple “exclusion criteria” and “inclusion criteria” for this purpose. Some state governments (e.g. Bihar, Jharkhand and West Bengal) have used the Socio-Economic and Caste Census (SECC) to identify households that meet the eligibility criteria. Others have used alternative methods, e.g. self-declaration (Odisha) and special surveys (Madhya Pradesh). The identification process has proved difficult in all states, but nevertheless far more reliable and transparent than the earlier “BPL Census”.
Another challenge is to avoid corruption in the PDS – leakages used to be as high as 80-90% in some of the sample states. In the eastern region, Chhattisgarh was the first state to undertake wide-ranging PDS reforms (in the late 2000s), with remarkable success. Among the reforms that proved effective are: clear entitlements, de-privatization of PDS shops, computerization, separation of transport and distribution agencies (“doorstep delivery”), fixed delivery schedules, strong grievance redressal, and extensive transparency measures. The NFSA requires all state governments to undertake similar reforms. PDS reforms are in full swing in the six sample states and evidence of their impact has already emerged from earlier surveys, e.g. in Odisha and Madhya Pradesh.
Role of electoral politics
PDS reforms and the rollout of NFSA have often accelerated in the run-up to Assembly elections. In Chhattisgarh, PDS reforms were initiated with an eye on possible electoral gains (Assembly elections were held in 2008). In Bihar, the implementation of NFSA accelerated sharply as the 2015 state elections approached. The latest example is West Bengal, where the TMC went out of its way not only to implement the NFSA before the 2016 Assembly elections but also to universalize the PDS.
The survey mentioned earlier, NFSA Survey 2016, covered three randomly-selected villages in each of 12 sample Blocks (two Blocks per state, in different districts). In each sample village, the survey teams went from house to house to verify ration cards and collect basic data on PDS purchases. About 3,600 households were interviewed. The survey teams also made unannounced visits to PDS shops in the sample villages.
The survey data are yet to be analysed – initial findings will be presented at the public hearings. Judging from reports of the survey teams, the survey consolidates earlier evidence that Odisha and Madhya Pradesh have already gone a long way in emulating Chhattisgarh’s success with PDS reforms. In these three states, most of the sample households had a ration card and were able to secure their foodgrain entitlements at the correct price.
In Bihar and Jharkhand, the PDS is certainly more inclusive, effective and transparent than it used to be. However, exclusion errors and corruption persists as well as occasional gaps in the supply chain (especially in Bihar). Much work remains to be done, but recent progress suggests that nothing prevents these “laggard” states from catching up with the trail-blazers.
In West Bengal, the NFSA is a unique opportunity to put the PDS on a new track. Before NFSA, the system was ridden with exclusion errors, convoluted entitlements and massive leakages. The survey suggests a sea change as the PDS was universalized just before the state elections earlier this year. As in Bihar and Jharkhand, however, the transition towards food security for all is far from complete.
Public Hearing in Gumla: District Administration Comes Under Fire for Lapses in Food Security Act
Jharkhand has reached a make-or-break point in the battle against hunger. For the first time, the National Food Security Act (NFSA) makes it possible to ensure that no-one sleeps on an empty stomach. Many people, however, are still struggling to secure their entitlements under the Act. By way of reality check, a careful survey of NFSA was recently completed by student volunteers inDumka and Gumladistricts of Jharkhand. A house-to-house survey was conducted in 6 small villages, 3 each in Bharno Block (Gumla District) and Ramgarh Block (Dumka District). The survey concluded on 14 June with a lively public hearing on NFSA in Bharno.
The District Supply Officer (ShriVinod Mishra), Block Development Officer (Ms. Shweta Ved), District Grievance Redress Officer (DGRO, Ashok Kumar Shah) and other representatives of the block and district administration attended the public hearing. The panel also includedBalram(State Advisor to the Supreme Court Commissioners in the Right to Food Case), Reetika Khera (Associate Professor, IIT Delhi),NandiniNayak (Assistant Professor,Ambedkar University Delhi), LijoChako (Chief Directing Officerof Head Held High Foundation) and Ankita Agrawal (Consultant, National Institute of Rural Development).
The public hearing began with a brief overview of the survey findings. The survey had found that almost all the 661 survey households were eligible under NFSA, as per official criteria notified by the Government of Jharkhand. However, only 74% of the survey households have a new ration card (“Priority” or “Antyodaya”) as of now. Coverage has increased post NFSA, but this varies significantly across regions. Further, some family members’ names are often missing on the new ration cards. As a result, the effective coverage of NFSA in the survey villages was still well below the 86% norm for rural Jharkhand.
Many respondents also complained of receiving less their due (5 kg per person per month in the case of Priority households) – about 16% less in an ordinary month, with a much larger shortfall in the last two months when the supply chain was disrupted in large parts of Jharkhand. On a more positive note, 90 of the respondents were satisfied with food grainquality.
Thiswas followed by testimonies from people in the survey villages and nearby villages. More than 500 people from about25 villages attended the public hearing to voice their grievances related to the Public Distribution System (PDS). Issues related to cancellation of ration card despite eligibility, missing members on the ration card, not receiving full entitlement and others, were brought up for discussion with the district and block administration.
One of the main issues discussed in the meeting was the absence of ration card amongst eligible households. Many people complained about not having a ration card, including many who had a ration card (even an Antyodaya card in some cases) in pre-NFSA times. In this regard, the following promises were made by the BDO: (1) camps would be setup at the Panchayat Bhawanevery Thursdayto accept applications for new ration cards and add missing members(2) genuine AAY applicants will be issued ration cards within 15 days.
Another critical problem was the local Marketing Officer (MO), Mr. Sushil Kandir. There werevocal complaints of corruption and gross absenteeism on his part from a massive section of the crowd. The BDO herself stated that the MO rarely comes to Bharno. The DSO added that even contacting him on the phone is difficult as his mobile is switched off most of the time. In spite of all this, the DSO and DGRO pleaded helplessness and failed to state clearly what action would be taken against the MO. Eventually, the DGRO agreed to recommend strict action against theMO within 3 days.