By Anushree Jois
Under the present Targeted Public Distribution System (TPDS) introduced by the National Food Security Act (NFSA), 2013, beneficiaries are entitled to food grains at subsidised rates. The Maharashtra government recently directed its district officials to shift households consisting of one or two members from the Antyodaya Anna Yojana (AAY) to the Priority Households (PHH) category. This move was justified as being necessary to prevent the wastage of food grains and to prevent the misuse of benefits under the yojana.
Background to the decision
The NFSA provided for the creation of the PHH while absorbing the existing AAY. Both these categories were recognised as ‘eligible households’. The PHH were eligible to receive five kilograms of food grains per person per household per month at subsidised rates of three rupees per kg of rice, two rupees per kg of wheat and one rupee per kg of coarse grains, while the AAY households were to continue to benefit from 35 kgs of foodgrains per household per month at the same subsidised rates as PHH.
The department of food and civil supplies of the state government issued a letter in September 2017, advising its district officials that while computerising ration cards, it found that several AAY cards belonged to households consisting of one or two members. As such, these cards were required to be cancelled and shifted to PHH. It was also suggested that any PHH consisting of five or more members could be in turn shifted in place of cancelled AAY ration cards.
The department appears to have issued such a directive as it viewed that AAY households consisting of one or two members did not consume all of the stipulated 35 kgs of food grains, resulting in wastage. There were also reports of excess food grains being sold in open market to shopkeepers and third parties. In order to curb wastage and prevent misuse of benefits under AAY, such a decision appears to have been taken.
Impact and evaluation
The decision of the department did not appear to be backed by statistical data, investigation and reports or by law. Out of 25 lakh families registered under AAY, close to 3.5 lakh families were required to be shifted to PHH. Several families were affected and protests followed in close to fourteen districts. Concerns were raised that the government had acted in violation of the Supreme Court’s directives on the NFSA. Subsequently, the department appears to have issued another letter to the district officials in October 2017 to implement its directive keeping in mind the court’s directives and clarified that the intention was to ensure subsidised grains were fully utilised.
Irrespective of the reasons assigned by the department, categorisation of households as AAY or PHH has to be carried out under the guidelines provided by law. Such guidelines for identifying the households under each category are different and so are the purposes of their creation and benefits granted. It is not a matter of discretion available to state governments to categorise households.
While both AAY and PHH is meant for the poor who are entitled to food grains at subsidised rates, the former is meant for the ‘poorest of the poor people’. AAY households do not have the ability to buy food grains even at subsidised rates around the year. These families have no stable income. Such families in Maharashtra include tribals, households headed by widows, landless agricultural labourers, rural artisans or craftsmen, daily wage workers such as rag pickers, handcart pullers, and HIV or leprosy affected personsns.
Cause for concern
The state government should prevent the leakage of food grains by addressing prevailing reasons, such as diversions by officials, agents and fair price shops, lack of good vigilance systems and wastage of grains at godowns. To achieve this end, the state government can ensure the strict adherence to NFSA, enact CORE PDS (use of smart cards and point-of-sale tracking), and the digitalisation of ration card database. The central government’s decision to mandate beneficiaries to link their ration cards to Aadhaar could also assist the state government in this regard. Also, to particularly address the issue of leakage by beneficiaries under AAY, the state government could propose an amendment to AAY and arrive at a limit on per person in a household, as in the case of PHH.
NFSA guarantees a legal right to food to eligible households. Any move of the government not in line with the Act is clearly a violation of such a legal right. The state government’s move to reclassify people falling under the AAY, under the garb of prevention of misuse while well-intended could, however, be violative of the Act and the guidelines thereunder.
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