The implementation of the National Food Security Act (NFSA) in Jammu and Kashmir is snowballing into a major controversy, especially in areas close to the Line of Control, where people have threatened to cross over and seek help from residents of PoK, should the government not effect a rollback.
What exactly is the problem with NFSA?
It has got to do with the way the Act — which is aimed at providing food security to the people through subsidised foodgrains supplied through the public distribution system — works. Beneficiaries cover much of the country’s population, and the ‘priority’ group under the scheme is entitled to wheat at Rs 2/kg and rice at Rs 3/kg — subject to a cap of 5 kg per person per month. This ceiling doesn’t, however, apply to the ‘poorest of the poor’ covered by the Antyodaya Anna Yojana (AAY), who are entitled to 35 kg of foodgrains per family per month. Beneficiaries in the ‘non-priority’ group get foodgrains at Rs 10/kg, capped at 5 kg/person. Families with an annual income over Rs 25 lakh or landholding of 250 kanals (80 kanals for individuals), gazetted employees, and persons at constitutional posts are excluded.
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So, how does this work in J&K?
Under the norms, 119.13 lakh people come under NFSA cover — that is 95% of the population of the state. Out of this, 74.13 lakh fall under the priority sector, with 13.77 lakh under AAY. Forty-five lakh are in the non-priority sector, while 6 lakh people are not entitled to the benefits.
However, no central Act is directly implemented in Jammu and Kashmir — it is necessary that the Act should be ratified by the state government. In 2013, when the central Act was passed, the Omar Abdullah-led Congress-National Conference (NC) coalition government didn’t ratify the Act, and as such, it was not implemented in J&K.
And what has happened now?
The cabinet led by former Chief Minister Mufti Mohammad Sayeed gave its concurrence to the implementation of NFSA on December 2 last year. Accordingly, the Act was implemented in the state from February 1, 2016. The problem, however, is that while NFSA reduces the price of foodgrains for beneficiaries, it puts a cap on the quantity given to each person. Before the implementation of NFSA, each family in J&K was entitled to 35 kg of foodgrains. Since only a small percentage of the population falls under AAY in J&K, more than 90% of the state’s population is affected by the ceiling.
People who were not able to understand the import of the decision initially, realised the implication of the price-v-quantity trade-off after the quotas were released. Ever since, for about a fortnight now, the streets have erupted in protest.
How is J&K different from the rest of India?
Rice is the staple diet in the state, and a ceiling of 5 kg/person/month is too low for most of the population. Given that the average person in J&K consumes 400 g of rice every day, or about 12 kg per month, the potential deficit of 7 kg per person per month has to be made up by purchases from the market, where rice costs Rs 20-30 per kg. J&K produces less than a third of the rice it consumes, and production has been decreasing.
How have the mainstream opposition parties and separatists reacted?
Both have opposed the implementation of the NFSA. The mainstream opposition has argued that a very small percentage of families comes under AAY and BPL categories, and NFSA is not in the interest of the state. The separatists, on the other hand, suspect a deeper conspiracy in the move.
Why have the border areas and urban centres seen the biggest protests?
While people living in the rural areas produce rice locally, unsuitable terrain and tensions at the border ensure there is very little production in the border areas. People living in the border areas are often also the poorest — and solely dependent on the subsidized rations provided by the government through the Public Distribution System. The factors of minimal production and dependence on the PDS apply to the urban areas as well.
In recent days, people living close to the LoC have marched towards PoK with empty containers, seeking help from Kashmiris on the other side. It took the intervention of senior Army and government officials on Saturday to persuade thousands of villagers in the Tangdhar area close to the LoC to defer their protest for a week, and on Monday, large numbers of protesters in Baramulla town asked the government to allow them to fetch rice from Muzaffarabad in case it was not in a position to provide them their earlier quota. These protests, even if symbolic, do carry a deep political connotation in a conflict-ridden state like J&K.
Reactions form people across political arena on the issue
This Act can’t provide two square meals for a family even for 15 days… If the government doesn’t rescind this Act, people should be allowed to fetch rice from PoK through the Srinagar-Muzaffarabad road. We can’t see our families starve.
Tariq Magloo, Baramulla Traders’ Federation
It is very tragic and ironic that the previous government had said they would increase people-to-people contact, open additional LoC trade routes, but instead, people are moving towards the border, not for trade or to meet their kith and kin, but for foodgrains because they fear starvation.
Junaid Mattu, National Conference
(The Act) may have benefitted people in the rest of the country but when we were in the government with National Conference we felt it was not suitable for the state… The previous government instead of discussing it in the Assembly… implemented it without applying any mind.
Ghulam Ahmad Mir, Congress
The intensity of the protests has put the leadership of the PDP on the defensive, with the party’s seniormost member and MP from Baramulla, Muzaffar Baig, saying that the Act can be amended by lawmakers.