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BW Businessworld

Government Gives Rs 1,50,000 Crore Subsidy For Food Security: Secretary, Food & Public Distribution

"70 per cent rural and some 50 per cent urban population is covered under PDS and there are more than 5.27 lakh fair price shops in India functioning via PDS. This makes it world’s largest food distribution network," said PK Tiwari

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India had witnessed a global turbulence on food security in the previous decade. This was a major reason to bring National Food Security Act (NFSA) 2013. Now, this is a time when India is historically creating benchmarks on food security on the global canvas. BW Businessworld along with News Code organised a panel discussion on a burning issue of ‘A Robust PDS for Empowered Future’ on 29th of January in the national capital. The serious discussion had led to few eye-opening facts of this largest and widest Public Distribution System (PDS) of the world.

Answering a query of audience Ravikant, Secretary of Food & Public Distribution said, "government gives around Rs 1,50,000 Crore subsidy for food security".  Earlier to that addressing Robust PDS for an empowered future, joint secretary for food & public distribution department, PK Tiwari said, "70 per cent rural and some 50 per cent urban population is covered under PDS and there are more than 5.27 lakh fair price shops in India functioning via PDS. This makes it world’s largest food distribution network."

Carrying the panel discussion forward Vivian Fernandez, a freelance agriculture expert raised a query, if Direct Benefit Transfer (DBT) to be implemented or not? PK Tiwari replied that there are issues like banking charges in transaction and cash transfer being unhelpful in many states these are issues which distract states to be part of DBT. Ravikant added to this and said, "cashless transfer of benefit can play a vital role."

Vivian had raised an old but relevant case of Raghuvir Nagar, a locality in New Delhi where former Shila Dixit government of Delhi tried for same DBT system but people started opting for better nutrition options than what was available to them via PDS. Vivian asked, "if we can try to push state governments for the similar choices?" PK Tiwari answered his question and said, "it is a good idea apart from the core idea of compromising food security, you never know what people will buy if they are given cash benefit in their accounts." Tiwari had also shared the experience of one instance from Andhra Pradesh summit for PDS, where the situation emerged to make choices for state governments. If it is good to choose grains in DBT or cash transfer as best mechanism?

It was a moment of silence for the panel when the issue of keeping ‘hefty grain stocks emerged’. Saroja, CSO of an agriculture domain Agriwatch broke the silence and said, "government is more involved in the procurement of cereals". "Without the involvement of private sector, this becomes a long road to cover." She added, "in interior parts of the nation, procurement of grains become a difficult task to manage."

The panel had also discussed the possibility of any blended solution of DBT or cash transfer. Ravikant said, “Central government has its own limitations, ideally it should be 100 per cent DBT and up to the markets to decide the prices. It has a strong need to be worked upon because as per nutrition needs of food security act of 2013 any of the essential food grains cannot be substituted.”

President of BW Businessworld, Sunil Kumar asked the panel if there is any possibility of private participation in PDS. Ravikant responded to his query and said, "yes, it is a most welcome suggestion, besides, the government is already taking the support of private sector in logistics. He shared that in some parts of Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal private players are also doing the same. Besides, the quantity for procurement involved is too high that private player’s contribution appears negligible." Ravikant added, "peripheral options and support devices are procured from private players only, which makes it a vital part of entire PDS system."

Another major issue of local mandi taxes had also been raised, to which Ravikant responded, "it is a state subject and central government cannot help it rather than paying for the same tax or asking states to cover it under GST." Procurement mechanism by states had also been questioned to which Ravikant responded as “Surplus food grains in most of the states is very low in quantity, making it difficult to boost the agencies for procurement of the same." PK Tiwari said that states like Bihar had prior issues of non-payment to the procurement of grains by cooperatives, making it difficult to handle. Saroja said that, "there are few safe states like Rajasthan and Punjab where procurement is easy and other states must act in a professional manner to handle such a basic issue."

Expressing a socio-economic evil, Sunil said, "It is a social evil that we forget our traditional millets and cereals because the one living in Kerala has to eat rice grown in Punjab. Sunil was also critical to the system where much of transportation cost gets involved in such case. Ravikant expressed camaraderie with this and said, “We can also procure millets at the local level”. Moreover, NSFA speaks only about basic nutrition needs.” Addition of further items is possible but logistic becomes a huge issue. It is difficult to procure and handle perishable items or items with relatively less shell life like pulses. Procurement had been traditionally done keeping in mind a four months latency period," added Ravikant.

Replying to BW Businessworld’s question, how the error of inclusion can be handled or is it not handled due to political unwillingness? Ravikant replied that, "union government is playing a vital role in pulling stakeholders on the same page to handle this issue. This may be handled very soon." He responded to another question by BW Businessworld and said that apart from West Bengal most of the states have made a tremendous success to implement digital transformation from manual, in fair price shops. It will soon become a completely digital process, to have a purchase experience from a fair price shop which serves more than a 160 million families of beneficiaries.       

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