LSE’s Ruth Kattumuri argues that Chhattisgarh’s Food Security Act refers to most issues in broad terms and is short on specifics. This article first appeared in the Indian Express.

Targeting and improving food security is essential for Chhattisgarh, a state that has one of the highest hunger indices in the country. That is why it is good news that the CSI-Nihilent award for effective implementation of Centralised Online Real-time Electronic (Core) PDS (Public Distribution System), based on smart cards, was given to the Chhattisgarh state government. It is a worthwhile natural transition to build on recent improvements in the performance of its PDS and take it to the next level by enacting the Chhattisgarh Food Security Act, 2012.

The act identifies targeted groups to improve nutritional status, such as children, pregnant women and lactating mothers, destitutes, migrants, the homeless and particularly vulnerable social groups. It mentions its modus operandi and the financial responsibility of the state is laid out. But though the act addresses most relevant issues, they are referred to in very broad terms, without much detail. As a result, the act appears to be aspirational, rather than a guarantee of efficient and successful implementation.

The key challenges for food distribution programmes in India have been ensuring that the supply is of adequate quality and nutritional level. This act refers to food standards generally, but does not provide any detail of the nutritional levels to be met. Nor does it elaborate the quality of the provisions that would be provided.

The state government proposes mechanisms for internal grievance redressal. The reforms suggested include efficient methods of delivery to fair price shops; use of technology to improve transparency and prevention of leakages and diversion of resources; and leveraging the aadhaar” card for efficient identification of target groups. The act provides for the establishment of vigilance committees to ensure transparency. However, the processes required to ensure transparency and implementation are not clear.

While entitlements are specified in the legislation, it is important to make sure that the people being targeted are aware of their entitlements in order for them to access what is on offer. Information regarding the programmes needs to be clearly communicated through media, counselling and other methods. This will also help empower the individuals eligible for the schemes to claim what is due to them and perhaps also enable them to rebuff attempts by intermediaries to deprive them of said benefits. The responsibility of identifying and administering is being assigned to local bodies. Collaboration between local communities and local bodies will ensure better implementation of the programmes.

Chhattisgarh has successfully used technology in the past to improve performance, and scaling up technical approaches can enhance performance further. Voluntary participation by community leaders, civil society, student volunteers and religious groups in design and implementation will enable better performance. This is because, where the person responsible for implementation is corrupt, the hierarchical system creates a model of malpractices that become a norm across various ranks. It also disallows those located under corrupt governance to rectify the system. An explanation often given is that when people are poorly paid, they are tempted into misappropriation. Empowering people through information and communication, providing fair wages and creating greater awareness about corruption could help reduce malpractice.

Strong political will and administrative commitment for efficient implementation, greater monitoring and evaluation and regular reform can help improve the performance of the PDS. Ensuring efficient implementation of the PDS and prevention of misuse of public funds is crucial to ensure that the needy have access to food.

Chhattisgarh is taking responsibility for better implementation of the PDS, and this shows strong leadership, which is commendable. The state is working closely with local bodies to achieve greater successes. Responsible governance with greater collaboration between the Centre and state for managing resources will enhance performance and help fulfil common goals.

While the act has been passed, the date(s) for when the various provisions will be enacted has not yet been specified. Introducing acts using elections as a timeline is not necessarily bad policy if it is followed up by ensuring efficient and sustainable delivery of the provisions. The state can ensure that its hunger index is reduced and improve the nutritional levels of its people if its recent record of success in implementation of the PDS can be sustained and enhanced to ensure effective implementation of the mechanisms proposed by the act.

Regions such as Chhattisgarh, which are now trying to tackle and overcome their poor development indicators, can learn from best practices and successes in other states in India. Tamil Nadu has had experience of programmes for food security for at least 25 years. This state has, over the years, learned to improve its performance through technological interventions, innovation and effective delivery mechanisms, monitoring and responsibly involving multiple bodies at the local level. The Tamil Nadu model can provide a template to ensure that the aspirations of the Chhattisgarh Food Security Act is successfully implemented in all its aspects.

About the Author

Dr. Ruth Kattumuri is Co-Director of the LSE Asia Research Centre and India Observatory.

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