The National Food Security Act (NFSA), 2013, through the Public Distribution System (PDS), provides a crucial safety net for roughly 800 million people. Even critics of the PDS appreciated its services during the COVID-19 lockdown.
The humanitarian crisis resulting from the COVID-19 lockdown, made it apparent that too many were still excluded from the PDS. In response to the humanitarian crisis, the Government made one sensible policy decision swiftly. It doubled the entitlements of the 800 million who were already covered by the PDS (from five kilograms per person per month, to 10kg). But that does nothing for those without ration cards.
The exclusion problem
Another obvious solution, also suggested at the time, i.e., to increase population coverage based on population projections, fell on deaf ears. The exclusion problem could be because the NFSA coverage ratios were too low to start with, or due to the ‘freeze’ in coverage in absolute terms (around 800 million).
PDS coverage is determined by Section 3(2) of the NFSA 2013. It states that the entitlements of eligible households “shall extend up to seventy-five per cent of the rural population and up to fifty per cent. of the urban population.” Section 9 of NFSA required that the total number of persons to be covered “shall be calculated on the basis of the population estimates as per the census of which the relevant figures have been published.”
Any sensible policy should have an in-built mechanism for updating coverage annually to account for population increase. Between the last Census in 2011 and today, population increase has not been accounted for in determining the number of ration cards. No one could have anticipated that the 2021 Census would be postponed indefinitely. This means that even a decadal update has not happened.
Government inaction led to the matter being taken to the Supreme Court of India in the Problems and Miseries of Migrant Labourers case (Writ petition no. 6 of 2020). On July 21, 2022, the Court agreed that the prayer to increase coverage “seems to be genuine and justified”. It directed the Union of India to “come out with a formula and/or appropriate policy/scheme, if any, so that the benefits under NFSA are not restricted as per the census of 2011 and more and more needy persons/citizens get the benefit under the National Food Security Act”. Going further, the Court said that the Government could consider “projection of population increase” to resolve this issue.
A delayed response filed by the Government on October 10, 2022 was, disappointingly, aimed solely at justifying the freeze on PDS coverage under the NFSA. It states that because Section 9 of the NFSA requires that coverage be determined on the basis of the “latest census published…in the wake of unavailability of latest Census data, any change or revision in the number of beneficiaries would necessitate an amendment in the Act”.
Sidestepping the Court’s suggestion
As mentioned above, the Court had already taken into account the delayed Census and suggested a solution: to use population projections. Official population projections for 2021 are available from the Registrar General of India, but the Government response sidesteps this suggestion.
There was no direction from the Court to change coverage ratios (of 50% in urban and 75% in rural areas), yet the Government response mischievously attempts to divert the discussion towards the fixation of caps. On the basis of NITI Aayog’s view, the Government response states that one of the “prime concerns” while fixing the ceiling at the time of enactment of the NFSA was that “as standard of living of people would improve over a period of time, the coverage may be reduced”.
In fact, one of the most hotly debated issues on the NFSA in Parliament was that coverage should be universal. Parties such as the Biju Janata Dal and the Communist Party of India and others moved for universal or wider coverage. The Bharatiya Janata Party’s Murli Manohar Joshi lamented that it is “half-baked” and not universal in nature.
Never mind inconvenient facts, in making an argument for reducing coverage ratios, the Government affidavit also relies on faulty logic: as per capita income has increased, the vulnerable population “would have gone down considerably”. Even schoolchildren know that an increase in the average does not necessarily imply an increase for everyone. There have been several independent reports warning about the rising economic inequality in India.
In its response, the Government attempts repeatedly to shift the blame to State governments. But States are responsible for identifying people for PDS ration cards, once they are given the numbers to be covered by the central government.
On coverage by States
Though it is not a State responsibility, on account of the hardship faced by people, several State governments have used their own resources — this includes poor States such as Chhattisgarh and Odisha — to expand coverage beyond the centrally determined quotas. According to our estimates (Khera and Somanchi), in 2020, there were 809 million NFSA PDS beneficiaries supported by the central government. An additional 90 million people had access to the same (or more) benefits from the PDS as NFSA beneficiaries through their State governments. States were subsidising another 51 million people, but their entitlements were less than those of NFSA beneficiaries.
Reading the Government response, one gets the impression that it was prepared for a school debate rather than a serious policy matter. There is no attempt at understanding or addressing the hardships of people who are deprived of the food security net that the PDS provides.
Robust procurement trends and a comfortable food stocks position are what make an expansion affordable. Adjusting for population increase, as directed by the Supreme Court, will increase coverage by roughly 10% (from 800 million to 900 million).
This is nothing when compared to the doubling of food subsidy resulting from the “double ration” (10 kg per person per month) provision granted as COVID-19 relief to 800 million existing ration card beneficiaries. While the extension of “double rations” doubled the central food subsidy, it helped the Government control the storage problem arising from its ballooning buffer stocks.
Instead of allowing the Government to delay this any further (the matter has been in Court since 2020), the Supreme Court should be firm, directing the Government to get on with apportioning the additional coverage of roughly 100 million across States, so that the States can start identifying new ration card beneficiaries. Poor people should have to not pay the price for the state’s failure in conducting the 2021 Census.
Reetika Khera is Professor (Economics) at the Indian Institute of Technology Delhi