FE Editorial : For universal food security

Written by The Financial Express | Updated: Jul 30 2010, 04:13am hrs
A universal food security Act remains an important agenda item for the National Advisory Council and the UPA government. And while it is difficult to object to the end goal, there are a number of very problematic issues in implementation that need to be addressed. The Supreme Court, on Tuesday, criticised the government for the wastage of foodgrains, rotting in various government godowns. Earlier, an SC appointed committee headed by retired SC judge DP Wadhwa had described the public distribution system (PDS) as inefficient and corrupt and run by a vicious cartel of bureaucrats, fair price shop owners and middlemen. The committee had also said that the governments Rs 25,000 crore subsidy was being pocketed at many points by vested interests. There is little doubt that there is a very serious problem with the way the government system distributes foodgrains. Yet, the government wants to push ahead with an ambitious food security Act, which will commit more money to be channelled through this very same leaking system. The NAC and the government would be well-advised to consider reform of the PDS before going ahead with food security legislation.

Unfortunately, there seems little original thinking on this front. The minister for agriculture and food responsible for the PDS, among other things, requested that his ministerial duties be pared down. Nothing has been done so far. There is a curious level of inactivity (at least of the reformist kind) in the department of food, given that the government is grappling with serious food inflation. If not the food security Bill, at least inflation ought to have spurred some action. But we continue to wait. There is, of course, one radical alternative that the government can consider instead of attempting piecemeal reform of the PDS, and that involves abolishing the PDS altogether. The goal of food security can also be achieved by transferring cash to the poorest households who can then use that money to buy from the free market. The UID programme can help target the poor more accurately. That has the potential to completely eliminate middlemen and corruption from the food distribution system. It would also help the agricultural economy by reducing government procurement, which only distorts the market. And it would certainly help reduce the kind of wastage the SC is so dismayed about. But does the NAC or the UPA government have the political will to push through more radical reform