How NITI Aayog, centre's think tank, has relentlessly opposed any relief to millions of poor Indians desperately needing subsidized food.Documents @reporters_co accessed lay bare its constant attempts to curtail India's food security law and "radically overhaul the PDS"
First, a bit about the law: Enacted in 2013, the National Food Security Act (NFSA) guarantees subsidized food to up to 75% of India's rural population and up to 50% of the urban population. Each right-holder is legally entitled to 5kg of low-cost foodgrain every month. That has so far entitled a little over 80 crore poor citizens to subsidized food. The maximum number of right-holders under the law has been frozen based on population estimates of the last Census.
That fact alone might have given you, dear reader, an idea of why food security is a hot debate right now (maybe not as hot as the debate around Indian corporates...we'll talk about that later).
Back to NFSA: the last Census was held in 2011. Going by precedent, the new one should have been in 2021.
Understandably it was pushed back due to the Covid-19 pandemic. But why the government is now scheduling it to after Parliamentary elections in 2024 one can't tell with evidence. Read Hindustan Times report on this issue here.
In the last decade, the population of India has increased. But since there has been no Census, the government has not revised the number of beneficiaries under NFSA for the last ten years. Some estimates suggest 10 crore Indians are currently excluded due to population growth.
This means, there are millions who are entitled to subsidised food but aren't getting any right now -- for no fault of theirs. The pandemic only worsened the situation by pushing many more into poverty. They too stand deprived. Read The Hindu's take on it here.
“It shall be beneficial to a large number of people,” SC said.
The govt did nothing.
In January 2022, @pbhushan1 submitted another petition, seeking the govt’s compliance with the court’s orders. Almost six months later, the government responded. In an affidavit, it told the SC that expanding coverage under NFSA would be possible only after a new Census. And it submitted correspondence from the Registrar General and Census Commissioner that showed the Census had been indefinitely delayed. In effect, the government said it had no plans to widen the social security net anytime soon.
The court found a way around the government’s excuses. It directed the government to develop a formula or a policy to ensure that Act was not shackled by the Census of 2011 and that more needy citizens should be able to access the Act’s benefits.
The court’s order prompted discussions within the govt. The Registrar General, NITI Aayog, Ministry of Statistics, and Food Dept got into parleys. It was in one such meeting on August 31, 2022, that the Aayog first proffered a legal argument to not follow the court’s orders.
It said, “Hon’ble SC had not directed to amend the provisions of the Act.” Then pointing out that NFSA has no provision for using population projections to determine coverage, it said, “the direction of the Hon’ble Court is against provisions contained in Section 9 of the Act.”
It was setting grounds to oppose the expansion of the food security law. If the govt did want to follow up on SC’s orders, and found it breached the law, it always had the option to amend the law. The NITI Aayog stopped at finding the problem in the SC order and not the solution.
We found that the Aayog has internally even asked the govt re-examine whether it is “feasible and desirable” to “continue providing cheaper food grains to nearly two-thirds of the population”. Despite evidence showing more people need to be included in the food security ambit.
The govt didn’t tell the court about NITI Aayog’s concern. Instead, in Sept 2022, NITI Ayog wrote a different argument to prevent expansion of the scheme. This is the one the govt took before SC.It argued that there aren’t as many poor people as there were a decade ago!
“Rise in per capita income of people is bound to have taken a large number of households to higher income class and they may not be as vulnerable as they were in 2013-14.”This, however, is a flawed argument. Read Times of India's article on it here.
Per capita income is the average money each person in a country earns a year. When the rich make more money, per capita income zooms. But during the pandemic, millions lost their jobs and became poor. Per capita income number doesn’t show the socioeconomic turmoil.
Several economic reports have pointed to increasing inequality during the pandemic and in the economic recovery after.Yet, the Centre placed Aayog’s view, that beneficiary numbers would have gone down, before the apex court.
Internal documents show a more audacious recommendation by the NITI Aayog.What we found was evidence that the NITI Aayog has been keen to not just pare down but completely alter the food scheme since as far back as 2019.
The Aayog’s Project Appraisal and Management Division in Nov 2019 wrote:
“In order to ensure efficient utilization as well as distribution of food grains it is imperative that the distribution of food grains under NFSA is undertaken under PPP (Public Private Partnership) mode.”
“Private players should be engaged for procurement, transportation and storage of identified quantum of food grains for operational purposes as well as for maintenance of buffer stock in identified areas or at state/national level,” the division’s comment reads.
It said so despite past experience. In the past, there have been instances of the private sector trying to supply subsidised food to children under some schemes, such as the mid-day meal. It led to uproar, forcing then govts to step back from the idea. Read Down To Earths take on this topic here.
The case is ongoing. But the Centre's stand on food security is more or less clear: In the latest Union budget presented on February 2, there was a deep slash in foodgrain subsidy for the poor, with a massive 63% cut (yes, more than what simple reading of budget docs suggests).
The Food Corporation of India (FCI), responsible for procuring grains from farmers, has been given short shrift. Instead of providing it dues worth Rs 90,000 crore for procurement, the govt has asked FCI to take a loan from the market. This will further reduce FCI’s efficiency.
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