Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa has emerged among the strongest voices against the Food Security Bill, which is being pushed by the UPA government. She recently wrote to the Prime Minister asking him to exempt Tamil Nadu from the implementation of the ordinance that brought the Food Security Bill into force. Apart from the political overtones that such a request might be seen to have, experts in the field of food policy say there could be sound logic to Jayalalithaa’s plea for exemption.
Jayalalithaa had reasoned that Tamil Nadu has for many years now had a Public Distribution System (PDS) that can be availed by all the residents of the State. She said the introduction of the provisions of the Food Security Bill would remove the cover from a portion of the population, ruining the all-inclusive nature of Tamil Nadu’s PDS cover. The Food Security Bill makes provisions for different categories of beneficiaries, with the aim to allot more food grains to poor families and less for the better off.
A majority of political parties have objected to provisions of the Food Security Bill, especially with relation to the structures and procedures for the determination of beneficiaries and the mode of distribution itself. The continuing lack of clarity on these fronts was behind the repeated disruption of proceedings in Parliament whenever the Bill came up for discussion. The Bill also saw strong opposition from a number of State governments. States like Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Himachal Pradesh, Odisha and Rajasthan have over the years made changes to their PDS structures to make them more inclusive, based either on local needs or on political considerations. The implementation of the Food Security Bill would mean an erosion of the political gains from the inclusiveness of these systems.
Tamil Nadu has had PDS-for-all plus a strong co-operative movement and government interventions. The Amma Unavagams and Farm Fresh Consumer Outlets, which offer subsidised vegetables, fall under the category of interventions. According to Jayalalithaa, Tamil Nadu’s systems and interventions have given greater food and nutrition security than can possibly be delivered by the Food Security Bill in its present form.
Even as scholars studying nutrition security and urban poverty have raised red flags over the need for continuation of services and quality control at Amma Unavagams, there seems to be little disagreement over the fact that Tamil Nadu’s present system is more robust than the provisions of the Food Security Bill.
“I prefer the Tamil Nadu system of actual food being given at subsidised rates. This would directly reach working class men and women, and help bring their daily expenses down,” says Prof S L Rao, former director general of the National Council of Applied Economic Research. He adds that Tamil Nadu has time and again demonstrated its ability to effectively deliver cooked food, like the mid-day meal programmes introduced by chief minister K Kamaraj in the 1960s and subsequently revitalised and expanded by chief minister M G Ramachandran in the 1980s and by Jayalalithaa in 2013.
Rao says the biggest problem with any scheme of this nature in India comes with the identification of beneficiaries. “All the issues arise out of this stage. You have a large number of people without ration cards, many cases of fake ration cards and so on and so forth. That’s why any solution has to be open to all if it has to be effectively availed of by those who actually need them. On that front, the intervention with the subsidised tiffin centres is appreciable because they also generate jobs for women,” says Rao.
While long years of experience with implementation and a strong infrastructure backbone can ensure the success of food and nutrition security policies in Tamil Nadu, the same provisions perhaps may not hold good in a State like Uttar Pradesh or Bihar, where both systems and infrastructure are weak. “In those cases the best thing to do is to giving away grains directly,” Rao says.
He also suggests that the government has the option of using women’s self-help groups in rural areas to merge preparation of food for noon meal scheme and the subsidised tiffin centres.