The National Food Security Act, 2013, has met with prolonged political indifference, but there is some hope now since the Centre has been asked by the Supreme Court to ensure that States implement key aspects of the progressive law.
The directives in the Swaraj Abhiyan case underscore the depressing reality that several State governments have not met key requirements in the legislation which empower the common person in securing subsidised food.
Sections 14, 15 and 16, which require the setting up of a grievance redressal mechanism and a State Food Commission with responsibility to monitor the implementation of the law, have been heeded only in name, as in Haryana, or not at all.
As the court has pointed out, Article 256, which casts a responsibility on the States and the Union to ensure compliance with laws made by Parliament, also provides the remedy, as it can be invoked by the Centre to set things right. Unfortunately, the NFSA, which is vital for social security through the Public Distribution System and child welfare schemes, has suffered due to a lack of political will.
As a law with egalitarian goals, the NFSA should have set the floor for food security through the principle of universal access, though not every citizen would need it. There is great merit in providing highly subsidised foodgrains to targeted households chosen by the State governments, with a ceiling of 75% of the population in rural areas and 50% in urban areas.
But the system should have in-built mechanisms to allow for the entry of new households that suddenly find themselves in financial distress, while others can exit it based on changed circumstances.
Such arrangements can be made only when there is a full-fledged, independent machinery in the form of a Food Commission, and district-level grievance redressal, besides social audits. All these are provided for under the Act, but have been ignored.
Modernisation of the PDS, with the use of information technology, could incorporate such dynamic features to the supply of subsidised food to those who need it, and eliminate deficiencies and fraud.
Now that the Ministry of Consumer Affairs, Food and Public Distribution has been given specific directives by the court to complete the unfinished tasks this year, it should make up for lost time.
As is widely acknowledged, some States are better at running the PDS than others, and the food security law is the best tool to raise standards uniformly.
Food Ministry data presented to Parliament show that the present system does not reflect the true scale of public grievances, with a mere 1,106 complaints received from beneficiaries nationwide in 2016, including those reported in the media. The court’s intervention is wholly welcome to make the NFSA meaningful.