Recently there was a news report about the plans of the new government in Andhra Pradesh (AP) to launch a scheme for supplying food grains and other essential foods to low income group of population at a subsidized price considered affordable to them. The news value is not on the content of the scheme but about the name proposed under which the program will be propagated. While the same program was in operation in 2013 itself introduced by the previous government, the new regime wants to rename it under the pretext that it would supply better quality foods under the package. It is claimed that under the previous dispensation bad quality foods were distributed bringing bad name to the scheme and hence the need to rename the same. The issue of repacking or renaming old schemes is a debatable one with such tendency becoming evident even at the national level.
The launching of Swatch Bharat Abhiyan (SBA) by the new NDA government is an example of renaming popular schemes where governments invest heavily. It seems there was a similar program taken up by the earlier government with the same objectives under the name Nirmal Bharat Abhiyan which the present government found it wanting and ineffective in many ways which was the justification offered for renaming this national project. In AP a scheme was introduced under the name .Indira Gandhi Amma Hastam (IGAH) under which 22 lakh identified low income families (BPL Families) were provided with a "food pack" containing wheat flour, pulses, edible oil, sugar etc for Rs 185 which in the market would have costed Rs 292. The new scheme is to be launched to replace the earlier one under the name NTR Aapanna Hastam (NTRAH) providing same package but claimed to be of better quality. What ever be the name of the scheme, it is a laudable one because a government is thinking for the first time that cereals alone do not constitute food security.
One another feature of NTRAH is that the beneficiaries are identified based on their income to be eligible to receive the special white card under which entitlement is given. This is in contrast to the so called Food Security Act (FSA) passed by the Parliament last year under which cereals are offered to 67% of the Indian population at a ridiculously low price of Rs 1-2 per kg! It is a tragedy that the new government is continuing with this Act in spite of knowing that it is seriously flawed. Any welfare scheme can be acceptable only when truly deserving people receive the benefits and FSA suffers from this lapse as 67% of population to be provided such heavily subsidized cereals, cannot be considered poor by any stretch of imagination! Committing an astronomical sum of Rs 1.30 lakh crore of rupees every year from the national exchequer cannot be justified if such a huge expenditure is meant to really help poorest of poor people in the country. Like in AP, the central government must insist on identifying the beneficiaries through dependable surveys regarding their income before rolling out the scheme pan India.
The NTRAH offers a mix of wheat flour, pulses, edible oil, sugar, salt and some spices supposed to be sufficient for a family for one month. It is not clear as to how such a mix has been identified as sufficient for a person though prima facie this "food pack" does help the beneficiaries who also get subsidized grains under the FSA. Currently AP has a population of 5 crore ( roughly about 1.2 crore families) and it is not known how many people will be covered under the new NTRAH. The earlier estimate of 22 lakh families for the undivided AP may see some revision and the contours of the new scheme will emerge when the same is finalized before launching from January next year. But the state has to keep in mind that such subsidies should reach only the very poor people whose quality of life is bound to become better with the supply of 9 essential commodities under the scheme.
IGAH scheme presently in operation was severely criticized by the present government because the quality of the commodities supplied was claimed to be poor especially in terms of color and flavor though no safety issue was raised. The million dollar question is how the new scheme will overcome the deficiencies pointed out because the quality of food ultimately will depend on sourcing the supplies and managing procurement efficiently. Of course the operation is not massive posing any logistical nightmare but still there could be quality issues which need to addressed to avoid people calling it as "old wine in new bottle"! Government will face a dilemma as to whether the scheme will be run by a public agency or it will be PPP model both having some limitations. While government agencies are heavily bureaucratized hampering sound management decisions, private contractors tend to indulge in short cuts and corruption to make a fast buck in the process.
Finally a word about the mix of commodities proposed under NTRAH. Probably it may need some modification viewed from health and nutrition perspectives. Salt is a cheap commodity and buying the same from the open market may not be a problem. Similarly supply of maida is questionable because it is not considered a healthy food compared to whole wheat atta. Why not increase atta correspondingly? Also to be considered is whether mustard seeds can be included in the mix as it is one of the most frequently used condiment for flavoring most of the food preparation. If milk powder is also included the pack could be considered nutritionally well balanced.
AP deserves all kudos for thinking about such a project for improving the quality of life among poorest of the poor and every state must watch the performance of this scheme for introduction of the same in their own states soon.
The name of the scheme does not matter but its content, management and benefits count a lot in deciding whether it becomes useful and popular!