Now that the National Food Security Act is set to be amended to give states more time to implement the legislation, several of its flaws should be re-examined and the Act suitably amended. The immediate need for an amendment arose because the deadline of a year for its enforcement in all states (that is, by July 5, 2014) was, oddly, incorporated in the law - rather than being enforced through an executive order, as is more common. Only five states have so far managed to identify the beneficiaries; six others have done so partially. This is a time-consuming process, since the states are free to follow their own criteria to select beneficiaries. Some states want similar freedom to decide on the extent of population coverage under the law by factoring in their poverty level and local circumstances, instead of sticking to the caps fixed by the Centre. Stipulating a new deadline in the changed statute would, therefore, prove equally problematic.
Among the other slip-ups in drafting the legislation, the most significant is the stipulation of prices for foodgrain - Rs 3 a kilogram for rice, Rs 2 for wheat and Rs 1 for coarse grains - in the law itself. Since the minimum support prices of foodgrain are revised every year, occasional - if not periodic - revision of consumer prices is imperative. Another problematic provision is the food entitlement quota of 5 kg a person every month. Going by the National Sample Survey Organisation data for 2011-12, the average per capita monthly consumption of cereals is 11.2 kg in rural areas and 9.3 kg in cities. The envisaged quota, therefore, is just around half the actual requirement. Since increasing the grain entitlement may not be feasible for fiscal and logistic reasons, the government should at least modify the foodgrain procurement system to leave sufficient grain in the market to keep prices low, since beneficiaries will need to supplement their needs from the open market. Any supply crunch in the market due to an excessive grain mop-up by government agencies under the open-ended procurement system would needlessly fan food inflation, regardless of production and availability. Of course, this doesn't even go into the larger issue of the excessive focus on foodgrain, when it is protein foods and vegetables that most Indians struggle to buy. Many states are also uncomfortable with the provision that nutritious cooked food must be provided to infants as well as pregnant and lactating women, or else they are obliged to offer cash compensation. This issue needs to be settled in consultation with the states.
Above all, a re-examination of the law must consider the need to alleviate malnutrition along with hunger. Some states have sought to address this aspect by offering pulses, edible oils and salt, along with cereals, to ensure a complete diet. The new government would also do well to look at the broader issue of cash-versus-kind transfer of food subsidy. The existing law envisages a combination of physical supply of subsidised food and cash compensation in cases where this supply is not possible. Globally, cash transfer has been deemed more efficient in achieving food and nutrition security than supply of grains in kind. Since pilot projects to disburse subsidies in cash are already under way, doing the same in the case of food subsidy, too, needs a fair trial.