The public distribution system (PDS) in the Northeast continues to leak heavily. This has been brought out in the economic survey 2014-15 tabled in Parliament by Fince minister Arun Jaitley. The survey says that subsidized goods in large quantities, particularly kerosene, rice and wheat, do not reach the targeted poor but are sold at open market rates. The poor therefore suffer twice — they fork out money at market rates to buy essential goods, while the government taxes the entire population directly and indirectly to raise the money to subsidise those very same goods. Quoting figures for the year 2011-12, the survey states that kerosene leakage was 97% in galand, 84% in Manipur, 80% in Sikkim, 76% in Aruchal Pradesh and 70% in Meghalaya. As for Assam, the leakage was 54% but the loss amounted to a whopping Rs 484 crore. The leakage of PDS rice was 96% in Manipur, 91% in galand and 27% in Assam. Leakage of PDS wheat is between 90 to 100 per cent in the NE states. The economic survey therefore concludes that there is a strong case for converting all subsidies into direct cash benefit transfers to the poor. The day may not be far off when the government will seek to put money directly into bank accounts of targeted beneficiaries, ebling them to buy goods at market rates.
For long, the country’s PDS has been projected as the medium to guarantee food security to the poor. This is important, since the poverty line in calories is set so low that keeping body and soul together becomes nearly impossible for the poor. The Union ministry of consumer affairs, food and public distribution mages the PDS jointly with state governments. The nodal body is the Food Corporation of India (FCI), which procures essential goods at minimum support prices from farmers and maintains it for the PDS. But times are a changing, with the roles of both the FCI and the network of fair price shops now under the scanner. This has come to light with the Shanta Kumar high level committee submitting its report within six months to the rendra Modi government in January this year. The report has made far-reaching recommendations which are sure to create an upheaval once the government gets down to implement it. The committee has recommended that the tiol Food Security Act (NFSA) 2013 be curtailed from 67 to 40 per cent of the population. The other major recommendation is to replace the PDS by a cash transfer system. This means that the FCI and fair price shops can be wound up in due course, since state governments will no longer need to procure foodgrains from farmers and store and transport these to fair price shops.
The harsh reality is that large parts of the country continue to be plagued by hunger and malnutrition. Limiting the scope of the Food Security Act and winding up the PDS will therefore not be easy for the Modi government, considering its political implications. Vast quantities of foodgrains rotting in the FCI godowns, leakages in the PDS, more and more farmers favouring open markets, and changing food habits of even low income households — are touted as reasons to scrap the PDS. A major argument against the Food Security Act is that it depends on the leaky PDS. It is against this uncertain backdrop that the performance of Assam has to be assessed. Reports by the ‘Indian Council for Research on Intertiol Economic Relations’ and economists Jean Dreze and Reetika Khera have shown that the PDS leakage in Assam ranges from 50 to 60 per cent. In states like Tamil du, Andhra Pradesh, Jammu and Kashmir, Chattisgarh and Tripura, the PDS leakage is negligible. The Food and Civil Supplies department in Assam led by zrul Islam for three consecutive terms has much to answer for in its miserable failure to curb PDS leakage. And now comes the news that the Tarun Gogoi government is set to miss its fourth deadline on March 31 in implementing the Food Security Act in the State. The continuous lapses are glaring, considering that food security for two-thirds of the country’s population was the main electoral plank of the earlier UPA regime. It is now the Modi government that is prodding Dispur to implement the Act, but even the computerised list of beneficiaries in the State has not been completed in more than a year. Food security for the people of Assam therefore continues to remain a pipe dream.