The National Food Security Act was passed in 2013. This column reports findings from a recent survey on the status of the Act in six of India’s poorest states. Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Odisha and West Bengal are doing quite well - the PDS is in good shape and most people are covered; however, Bihar and Jharkhand are yet to complete essential PDS reforms.
A survey of the National Food Security Act (NFSA) was conducted during 1-10 June 2016 by student volunteers in six of India’s poorest states: Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Odisha and West Bengal. In each state, investigators went from house to house in six randomly-selected villages spread over two districts and enquired about people’s ration cards, PDS (Public Distribution System) purchases, and related matters. About 3,600 households were covered – further details are given here along with a brief introduction to the NFSA.
As expected, Chhattisgarh emerged as the leading state in food security matters. Chhattisgarh enacted its own Food Security Act in December 2012, and implemented it without delay. Prior to that, the state had carried out extensive PDS reforms. Today, Chhattisgarh has a well-functioning, near-universal PDS which guarantees 7 kgs of foodgrains (more than the NFSA’s 5 kgs norm) per person per month to rural households along with some pulses and fortified salt. Most of the sample households were receiving their full entitlements without fail.
The PDS reforms in Chhattisgarh have inspired similar reforms in Odisha for some years. Odisha, too, now has a well-functioning PDS – most people get the correct amount of foodgrains each month at the right price. Madhya Pradesh’s progress is more recent – it happened during the last two years, in tandem with the implementation of NFSA. A survey conducted last year in Mandla and Shivpuri districts of the state found evidence of a dramatic improvement in the reach and effectiveness of the PDS. The June 2016 survey consolidates these findings: Madhya Pradesh is more or less on par with Chhattisgarh and Odisha in terms of basic indicators of the functionality of the PDS in the sample districts (see Table 1 at the end).
The latest entrant in the league of successful PDS reformers is West Bengal. In the run-up to the recent Assembly elections, the West Bengal government went out of its way not only to implement the NFSA but also to universalise the PDS in rural areas. This is a significant development as West Bengal’s PDS used to be among the worst in India. The survey findings suggest that West Bengal is rapidly catching up with the leading PDS reformers: most people have a ration card, PDS distribution is regular, and leakages have dramatically reduced. These findings, however, require corroboration as the sample is relatively small and further evidence on recent PDS reforms in West Bengal is not available as things stand. Also, it remains to be seen whether the surge of political interest in the PDS during the pre-election period will be sustained.
In Bihar and Jharkhand, the process of PDS reform is far from complete. The coverage of the PDS has vastly improved post-NFSA, but substantial exclusion errors persist – many poor households are still waiting for a ration card, and even if they have one, some family members are often missing from the card. Also, PDS distribution is far from regular and leakages remain high. In Bihar, especially, many households reported that they had to skip an entire month’s PDS ration from time to time as corrupt dealers siphoned it off.
It is important to mention that even in Bihar and Jharkhand, the PDS is improving. In both states, PDS leakages were as high as 80-90% throughout the 2000s. The progress made in the last few years suggests that nothing prevents Bihar and Jharkhand from achieving the same standards of PDS effectiveness as the other sample states.
Needless to say, much progress remains to be made even in Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Odisha and West Bengal. Missing names in ration cards (an important issue since NFSA provides for per-capita entitlements) are a major issue in all states, including Chhattisgarh. In Madhya Pradesh and West Bengal, there are major complaints about the quality of PDS foodgrains (wheat and flour, respectively). In Odisha, there have been massive cuts in the number of Antyodaya cards, causing severe hardship to the poorest of the poor. In West Bengal, despite some simplification under NFSA, the PDS remains too complicated, with numerous entitlements categories and special packages. Last but not least, the battle against corruption in the PDS is far from over.
Table 1. NFSA survey 2016: Selected findings
|Proportion of sample households with a ration card (%)||Average purchase of PDS foodgrains, as % of entitlementsa||Proportion of "missing names" in ration cardsb (%)||Proportion of households who felt quality of PDS grain is "good" or "fair" (%)|
|Before NFSA||After NFSA (Priority/AAY)||May-16||"Normal month"|
|All six states||58||85||71||92||13||69|
- All households (both Antyodaya and priority) eligible under NFSA are considered here. "Entitlements" refers to what a household is entitled to as per its ration card. Temporary disruption in the supply chain led to low distribution levels in Bihar and Jharkhand in May 2016. The figure for "normal month" in Bihar is an over-estimate, as it ignores "gap months" when there is no distribution at all (a resilient problem in Bihar).
- b. Priority households only (all eligible households under NFSA minus Antyodaya households); missing name = household member not listed in ration card.
Source: House-to-house survey of 3,600 households in 40 randomly-selected villages (3 or 4 in each of two sample Blocks, located in separate districts) in each state, June 2016. The sample is biased towards deprived districts and small villages. All figures are provisional.