Poorest states make headway towards food security

But Bihar and Jharkhand lag behind, survey indicates

GN Bureau | June 15, 2016


#malnutrition   #nutrition   #Madhya Pradesh   #Chhattisgarh   #West Bengal   #Bihar   #Jharkhand   #NFSA   #National Food Security Act   #Food Security  
At the public hearing in Gumla
At the public hearing in Gumla

Eastern India, “the world capital of malnutrition”, has reached a make-or-break point in the battle against hunger. For the first time, the National Food Security Act (NFSA) makes it possible to ensure that no one sleeps on an empty stomach. Many people, however, are still struggling to secure their entitlements under the Act.

By way of reality check, a careful survey of NFSA was conducted by student volunteers in six of India’s poorest states in early June 2016. Early survey findings suggest that four of these six states (Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Odisha and West Bengal) are making good progress towards food security for all: the public distribution system (PDS) is working quite well and most people are covered. Bihar and Jharkhand, however, are yet to complete essential PDS reforms.

The survey was conducted during June 1-10 by student volunteers. In each state, investigators went from house to house in six randomly selected villages of two districts and enquired about people’s ration cards, PDS purchases, and related matters. About 3,600 households were covered.

As expected, Chhattisgarh emerged as the leading state in food security matters. Chhattisgarh enacted its own Food Security Act in December 2012. The state has a well-functioning, near-universal PDS which guarantees 7 kg of food grain (more than the NFSA’s 5 kg norm) per person per month to rural households. Most of the sample households were receiving their full entitlements without fail.

The PDS reforms in Chhattisgarh have inspired similar reforms in Odisha, and more recently in Madhya Pradesh. The survey suggests consolidates earlier evidence that the reach and effectiveness of the PDS has dramatically improved in both states during the last few years.

West Bengal is the latest entrant in the league of successful PDS reformers. In the run-up to the recent assembly elections, the Mamata Banerjee government went out of its way not only to implement the NFSA but also to universalise the PDS in rural areas. The survey findings suggest that in West Bengal, too, PDS reforms have had positive results: most people have a ration card, PDS distribution is regular, and leakages have dramatically reduced.

In Bihar and Jharkhand, however, the implementation of the NFSA leaves much to be desired. 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, especially in Bihar. There is an urgent need to accelerate the process of PDS reform in both states - 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 those states. Missing names in ration cards are a major issue in all states, including Chhattisgarh. In Odisha, there have been alarming cuts in the number of Antyodaya cards, causing severe hardship to the poorest of the poor. In Madhya Pradesh and West Bengal, there are major complaints about the quality of PDS food grain. Last but not least, the battle against corruption in the PDS is far from over.
 

Also read: A report on public hearing at in Gumla of Jharkhand: People seek answers from district admin for food security lapses
 

NFSA Survey 2016: selected findings

 

Proportion of sample households with a ration card (%) Proportion of “missing names” in the ration cardsa (%) Average purchase of PDS food grains, as % of entitlementsb Proportion of hhs who felt quality of PDS grain is “good” or “fair” (%)
Before NFSA (BPL or AAY) After NFSA (Priority or AAY) May 2016 “Normal month”
Chhattisgarh 81 95 15 96 97 99
Odisha 62 88 8 96 99 86
Madhya Pradesh 55 84 6 100 98 72
West Bengal 51 86 13 95 95 57
Jharkhand 50 76 12 55 84 91
Bihar 64 83 17 15 84 58
SIX STATES 58 85 13 71 92 69

a: Priority households only (missing name = household member not listed in ration card).
b: Priority and Antyodaya (AAY) households combined. 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).
Source: House-to-house survey of all households in six randomly-selected villages (three 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.

[This report is based in communication received from the field.]
 

BACKGROUND NOTE
NFSA Survey and Public Hearings, 2016

Eastern India, the world capital of malnutrition, has reached a make-or-break point in the battle against hunger. For the first time, the National Food Security Act (NFSA) makes it possible to ensure that no one sleeps on an empty stomach. Many people, however, are still struggling to secure their entitlements under the Act. By way of reality check, a careful survey of NFSA was recently completed by student volunteers in six of India’s poorest states. The survey is due to conclude on 13-14 June with a series of public hearings, where the people concerned will have a chance to speak for themselves.

Public hearings on the National Food Security Act (NFSA) took place on June 13-14 in six of India’s poorest states: Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Odisha and West Bengal. We are hoping that these hearings, and the careful survey that preceded them, will shed light on the achievement and failures of NFSA in these states.

The National Food Security Act
The NFSA creates three sets of entitlements: (1) subsidized food from the Public Distribution System (PDS); (2) nutritious midday meals for children at schools and anganwadis; (3) universal maternity entitlements (Rs 6,000 per child). The public hearings focus specifically on PDS entitlements: 5 kg of food grains per person per month for “Priority” households and 35 kg per month for “Antyodaya” households, with a national coverage of 75% in rural areas (rising to 80-85% in the poorest states).

The NFSA was passed in 2013, but implementation has been tardy in many states. In five of the six survey states, the NFSA was rolled out sometime during the last two years. The sixth state, Chhattisgarh, enacted its own food security act in December 2012 and implemented it without delay.

Identification of eligible households
One of the biggest challenges in implementing the Act is the identification of “eligible” households (Priority and Antyodaya). This is the responsibility of state governments. Most of them use simple “exclusion criteria” and “inclusion criteria” for this purpose. Some state governments (e.g. Bihar, Jharkhand and West Bengal) have used the Socio-Economic and Caste Census (SECC) to identify households that meet the eligibility criteria. Others have used alternative methods, e.g. self-declaration (Odisha) and special surveys (Madhya Pradesh). The identification process has proved difficult in all states, but nevertheless far more reliable and transparent than the earlier “BPL Census”.

PDS reforms
Another challenge is to avoid corruption in the PDS – leakages used to be as high as 80-90% in some of the sample states. In the eastern region, Chhattisgarh was the first state to undertake wide-ranging PDS reforms (in the late 2000s), with remarkable success. Among the reforms that proved effective are: clear entitlements, de-privatization of PDS shops, computerization, separation of transport and distribution agencies (“doorstep delivery”), fixed delivery schedules, strong grievance redressal, and extensive transparency measures. The NFSA requires all state governments to undertake similar reforms. PDS reforms are in full swing in the six sample states and evidence of their impact has already emerged from earlier surveys, e.g. in Odisha and Madhya Pradesh.

Role of electoral politics
PDS reforms and the rollout of NFSA have often accelerated in the run-up to Assembly elections. In Chhattisgarh, PDS reforms were initiated with an eye on possible electoral gains (Assembly elections were held in 2008). In Bihar, the implementation of NFSA accelerated sharply as the 2015 state elections approached. The latest example is West Bengal, where the TMC went out of its way not only to implement the NFSA before the 2016 Assembly elections but also to universalize the PDS.

The survey
The survey mentioned earlier, NFSA Survey 2016, covered three randomly-selected villages in each of 12 sample Blocks (two Blocks per state, in different districts). In each sample village, the survey teams went from house to house to verify ration cards and collect basic data on PDS purchases. About 3,600 households were interviewed. The survey teams also made unannounced visits to PDS shops in the sample villages.

The survey data are yet to be analysed – initial findings will be presented at the public hearings. Judging from reports of the survey teams, the survey consolidates earlier evidence that Odisha and Madhya Pradesh have already gone a long way in emulating Chhattisgarh’s success with PDS reforms. In these three states, most of the sample households had a ration card and were able to secure their foodgrain entitlements at the correct price.

In Bihar and Jharkhand, the PDS is certainly more inclusive, effective and transparent than it used to be. However, exclusion errors and corruption persists as well as occasional gaps in the supply chain (especially in Bihar). Much work remains to be done, but recent progress suggests that nothing prevents these “laggard” states from catching up with the trail-blazers.

In West Bengal, the NFSA is a unique opportunity to put the PDS on a new track. Before NFSA, the system was ridden with exclusion errors, convoluted entitlements and massive leakages. The survey suggests a sea change as the PDS was universalized just before the state elections earlier this year. As in Bihar and Jharkhand, however, the transition towards food security for all is far from complete.

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