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Friday 13 April 2012

Food security & the cup of Tantalus-Mani Shankar Aiyar

The key issue is not availability or resources but last mile delivery: how to reach foodgrains to people.
In ancient Greece, the punishment given to Tantalus was to tie a cup around his neck and fill it with water. Every time he bent to take a sip, the cup would drop further and he would never get a drop into his parched mouth. From this comes the word "tantalizing". Something like that is happening with food security. However much food we procure and at whatever expense, not till what has been procured, stored and transported reaches the final consumer would the consumer have anything other than the cup of Tantalus tied around his neck.
The key issue in food security, which has received almost no attention from either those who advocate or those who oppose the Food Security Bill, is neither the adequacy of supplies nor the financial resources required but the question of 'last mile' delivery: how to get the food out to close on a billion people spread throughout the country from the remotest hamlets to the most vibrant urban centres.
There is little point in undertaking the gargantuan task (and expenditure) of procuring, storing and transporting the grain unless the foodgrains package actually reaches the intended beneficiaries. Instead of making this the issue at the heart of the Bill, the whole question of last mile delivery is relegated to a dozen lines in chapter XII of the draft legislation, vaguely suggesting that State governments might "assign by notification, additional responsibilities for implementation to the local authority."

'Local authority'

The very expression "local authority" in chapter XII betrays a mindset anchored in the colonial past. That was (and is) how the grassroots bureaucratic institutions were (and are) described. Now, for the best part of 20 years, our Constitution, in Article 243G, has mandated the replacement of nominated "local authorities" by democratically elected local "institutions of self-government." The distinction is vital. For, "local authorities" are nominated civil servants, transferable at a moment's notice and with no stake in the local community. The panchayats and nagarpalikas, on the other hand, are elected bodies, locally elected by the community within which they function and answerable to the gram sabha (or equivalent body in urban areas) comprising the entire adult electorate.
There are no less than 2.50 lakh of these institutions of self-government, to which have been elected no less than 32 lakh representatives, of whom as many as 12 lakh are women, 86,000 of whom hold office as chairperson or vice- chairperson. No one has a greater stake in food security than these women and the families they are locally responsible to. No one would better ensure last mile delivery than these elected women members and the local women's self-help groups. It is the intended beneficiaries who constitute the bulk of the electorate that vote these women (and men) to office. It is they, as the electorate, who have the authority to transfer to political obscurity the elected members of the local panchayat or nagarpalika if the elected representative fails to deliver. And it is within the same community that the one who once strutted the local political stage has to suffer the humiliation of political exile. If these panchayats and nagarpalikas, and their respective local women's self-help groups, are empowered through detailed State legislation, based on chapter XII provisions, to exercise the functions devolved on them in respect of food security, and provided both the finances and the functionaries to undertake last mile delivery, then the community, which has the singular stake in ensuring food security for itself, will be able to hold the local institution of self-government responsible for delivering or failing to deliver on food security. That would be the democratic way of ensuring that the persistent failures of our hideously bureaucratic public distribution system (PDS) are substantially rectified.
Chapter XII ducks this vital issue by merely leaving it to "State governments" (not even the State legislature) to "assign, by notification, additional responsibilities" to the "local authority." This chapter must be amended and lengthened to provide at a minimum for the following last mile delivery provisions.
First, the expression "local authority" must be replaced by the words "local institutions of self-government constituted under Articles 243G and W of the Constitution". Second, the State legislatures must, in terms of these Constitutional provisions, be charged with the task of legislating the "duties and responsibilities" that must vest in the panchayats and nagarpalikas, particularly in view of Entry 28 "Public Distribution System" of the Eleventh Schedule, which illustratively lists the functions to be devolved to the elected local bodies.

Activity Mapping

Third, in a separate schedule to the draft bill, the specific functions to be devolved to each tier of the three-tier system of panchayat raj should be detailed along with the simultaneous devolution of finances and functionaries to undertake last mile delivery. This is technically called Activity Mapping and must apply pari passu to the municipalities. Such Activity Mapping must include local procurement (with a view to building up local grain banks as was the practice till the British bureaucratised the entire process) as well as stocking and running the local ration shop, preferably, as has been demonstrated successfully in Chhattisgarh, by local women's self-help groups under the general supervision of the panchayats.
Fourth, to avoid panchayat raj becoming sarpanch raj, there must be statutory provision for each elected local body to have a committee of members, including all lady representatives, to oversee the local women's self-help groups. Fifth, the role of the District Planning Committees set up under Article 243 ZD (and ZE for the metropolitan areas) in regard to determining and projecting the district's requirements of food security must be clearly spelt out.

Emphasis on consensus

Sixth, and most important, there must be statutory provision for the gram sabha (or equivalent body in municipalities and metros) to regularly meet and discuss issues relating to food security, with the strict injunction that decisions taken by consensus or majority in the gram sabha in this regard must be respected. That is the way forward to an efficient, people-driven, people-centric food security system; else, the present draft will be paved with good intentions to the purgatory of dashed hopes and failed delivery.

(The writer is Member of Parliament, Rajya Sabha.)

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