The United Nations celebrates October 16 as the World Food Day every year, with an aim to spread awareness about eradicating hunger and ensuring food security for all. In this context, we examine the status of food and public distribution in India, and some challenges in ensuring food security for all.
In 2017-18, over Rs 1,50,000 crore, or 7.6% of the government’s total expenditure has been allocated for providing food subsidy under the Targeted Public Distribution System (TPDS). This allocation is made to the Department of Food and Public Distribution under the Ministry of Consumer Affairs.
Food subsidy has been the largest component of the Department’s expenditure (94% in 2017-18), and has increased six-fold over the past 10 years. This subsidy is used for the implementation of the National Food Security Act, 2013 (NFSA), which provides subsidised food grains (wheat and rice) to 80 crore people in the country. The NFSA seeks to ensure improved nutritional intake for people in the country.3
One of the reasons for the six-fold increase in food subsidy is the non-revision of the price at which food grains are given to beneficiaries since 2002. For example, rice is given to families under the Antyodaya Anna Yojana at Rs 3/Kg since 2002, while the cost of providing this has increased from Rs 11/Kg in 2001-02 to Rs 33/Kg in 2017-18.
Provision of food subsidy
TPDS provides food security to people below the poverty line. Over the years, the expenditure on food subsidy has increased, while the ratio of people below poverty line has reduced. A similar trend can also be seen in the proportion of undernourished persons in India, which reduced from 24% in 1990 to 15% in 2014 (see Table 1). These trends may indicate that the share of people needing subsidised food has declined.
Nutritional balance: The NFSA guarantees food grains i.e. wheat and rice to beneficiaries, to ensure nutritious food intake.3 Over the last two decades, the share of cereals or food grains as a percentage of food consumption has reduced from 13% to 8% in the country, whereas that of milk, eggs, fish and meat has increased (see Figure 1). This indicates a reduced preference for wheat and rice, and a rise in preference towards other protein rich food items.
Methods of providing food subsidy
Food subsidy is provided majorly using two methods. We discuss these in detail below.
TPDS assures beneficiaries that they will receive food grains, and insulates them against price volatility. Food grains are delivered through fair price shops in villages, which are easy to access.,
However, high leakages have been observed in the system, both during transportation and distribution. These include pilferage and errors of inclusion and exclusion from the beneficiary list. In addition, it has also been argued that the distribution of wheat and rice may cause an imbalance in the nutritional intake as discussed earlier.7 Beneficiaries have also reported receiving poor quality food grains as part of the system.
Cash Transfers seek to increase the choices available with a beneficiary, and provide financial assistance. It has been argued that the costs of DBT may be lesser than TPDS, owing to lesser costs incurred on transport and storage. These transfers may also be undertaken electronically.6,7
However, it has also been argued that cash received as part of DBT may be spent on non-food items. Such a system may also expose beneficiaries to inflation. In this regard, one may also consider the low penetration and access to banking in rural areas.
In 2017-18, 52% of the centre’s total subsidy expenditure will be on providing food subsidy under TPDS (see Figure 2). The NFSA states that the centre and states should introduce schemes for cash transfers to beneficiaries. Other experts have also suggested replacing TPDS with a Direct Benefit Transfer (DBT) system.4,
The central government introduced cash subsidy to TPDS beneficiaries in September 2015. As of March 2016, this was being implemented on a pilot basis in a few union territories. In 2015, a Committee on Restructuring of Food Corporation of India had also recommended introducing Aadhaar to plug leakages in PDS, and indexing it to inflation. The Committee estimated that a switch to DBT would reduce the food subsidy bill of the government by more than Rs 30,000 crore.
Current challenges in PDS
Leakages in PDS: Leakages refer to food grains not reaching intended beneficiaries. According to 2011 data, leakages in PDS were estimated to be 46.7%.10, Leakages may be of three types: (i) pilferage during transportation of food grains, (ii) diversion at fair price shops to non-beneficiaries, and (iii) exclusion of entitled beneficiaries from the list.6,
In 2016, the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) found that states had not completed the process of identifying beneficiaries, and 49% of the beneficiaries were yet to be identified. It also noted that inclusion and exclusion errors had been reported in the beneficiary lists.
In February 2017, the Ministry made it mandatory for beneficiaries under NFSA to use Aadhaar as proof of identification for receiving food grains. Through this, the government aims to remove bogus ration cards, check leakages and ensure better delivery of food grains.10, As of January 2017, while 100% ration cards had been digitised, the seeding of these cards with Aadhaar was at 73%.14
Storage: As of 2016-17, the total storage capacity in the country is 788 lakh tonnes, of which 354 lakh tonnes is with the Food Corporation of India and 424 lakh tonnes is with the state agencies.
The CAG in its performance audit found that the available storage capacity in states was inadequate for the allocated quantity of food grains.13 For example, as of October 2015, of the 233 godowns sanctioned for construction in Maharashtra, only 93 had been completed. It also noted that in four of the last five years, the stock of food grains with the centre had been higher than the storage capacity available with Food Corporation of India.
Quality of food grains: A survey conducted in 2011 had noted that people complained about receiving poor quality food grain which had to be mixed with other grains to be edible.6 There have also been complaints about people receiving food grains containing alien substances such as pebbles. Poor quality of food may impact the willingness of people to buy food from fair price shops, and may have an adverse impact on their health.
The Ministry has stated that while regular surveillance, monitoring, inspection and random sampling of all food items is under-taken by State Food Safety Officers, separate data for food grains distributed under PDS is unavailable. In the absence of data with regard to quality testing results of food grains supplied under PDS, it may be difficult to ascertain whether these food items meet the prescribed quality and safety standards.
 “Prices, Agriculture and Food Management”, Chapter 5, Economic Survey 2015-16, http://unionbudget.nic.in/budget2016-2017/es2015-16/echapvol2-05.pdf.
 The Case for Direct Cash Transfers to the Poor, Economic and Political Weekly, April 2008, http://www.epw.in/system/files/pdf/2008_43/15/The_Case_for_Direct_Cash_Transfers_to_the_Poor.pdf.
 Revival of the Public Distribution System: Evidence and Explanations, The Economic and Political Weekly, November 5, 2011,
 ‘Report of the Internal Working Group on Branch Authorisation Policy’, Reserve Bank of India, September 2016, https://rbidocs.rbi.org.in/rdocs/PublicationReport/Pdfs/IWG99F12F147B6E4F8DBEE8CEBB8F09F103.PDF.
 “The Cash Transfer of Food Subsidy Rules, 2015”, Ministry of Consumer Affairs, Food and Public Distribution, September 3, 2015, http://dfpd.nic.in/writereaddata/Portal/News/32_1_cash.pdf.
 Report of the High Level Committee on Reorienting the Role and Restructuring of Food Corporation of India, January 2015, http://www.fci.gov.in/app2/webroot/upload/News/Report%20of%20the%20High%20Level%20Committee%20on%20Reorienting%20the%20Role%20and%20Restructuring%20of%20FCI_English_1.pdf.
 Third Report of the Standing Committee on Food, Consumer Affairs and Public Distribution: Demands for Grants 2015-16, Department of Food and Public Distribution, http://18.104.22.168/lsscommittee/Food,%20Consumer%20Affairs%20&%20Public%20Distribution/16_Food_Consumer_Affairs_And_Public_Distribution_3.pdf.
 Performance Evaluation of Targeted Public Distribution System, Planning Commission of India, March 2005, http://planningcommission.nic.in/reports/peoreport/peo/peo_tpds.pdf.
 Audit on the Preparedness for Implementation of National Food Security Act, 2013 for the year ended March, 2015, Report No. 54 of 2015, Comptroller and Auditor General of India, http://cag.gov.in/sites/default/files/audit_report_files/Union_Civil_National_Food_Security_Report_54_of_2015.pdf.
 Unstarred Question No. 844, Lok Sabha, Ministry of Consumer Affairs, Food and Public Distribution, Answered on February 7, 2017, http://22.214.171.124/loksabhaquestions/annex/11/AU844.pdf.
 Annual Report 2016-17, Department of Food & Public Distribution, Ministry of Consumer Affairs, Food & Public Distribution, http://dfpd.nic.in/writereaddata/images/annual-140217.pdf.
 30 Food Subsidy, The Economic and Political Weekly, December 27, 2014, http://www.epw.in/system/files/pdf/2014_49/52/Food_Subsidy.pdf.
 Unstarred Question No. 2124, Lok Sabha, Ministry of Consumer Affairs, Food and Public Distribution, Answered on November 29, 2016, http://126.96.36.199/loksabhaquestions/annex/10/AU2124.pdf.
Need for Urban Co-operative Banks
The history of UCBs in India can be traced to the 19th century when such societies were set up drawing inspiration from the success of the co-operative movement in Britain and the co-operative credit movement in Germany. Urban co-operative credit societies, were organised on a community basis to meet the consumption-oriented credit needs of their members. UCBs are primary cooperative banks in urban and semi-urban areas. They are co-operative societies that undertake banking business. Co-operative banks accept deposits from the public and lend to their members. Co-operative banks are different from other co-operatives as they mobilise resources for lending and investment from the wider public rather than only their members.
Concerns regarding the professionalism of urban cooperative banks gave rise to the view that they should be better regulated. Large cooperative banks with paid-up share capital and reserves of one lakh rupees were brought under the scope of the Banking Regulation Act, 1949 with effect from March 1, 1966. Prior to this, such banks were regulated under the scope of state-specific cooperative laws. The revised framework brought them under the ambit of supervision of the RBI. Till 1996, these banks could lend money only for non-agricultural purposes. However, this distinction does not apply today.
The Expert Committee noted that UCBs play a key role in financial inclusion. It further observed that the focus area for UCBs has traditionally been communities and localities including workplace groups. They play an important role in the delivery of last-mile credit, even more so for those sections of the population who are not integrated into the mainstream banking framework. UCBs primarily lend to wage earners, small entrepreneurs, and businesses in urban and semi-urban areas. UCBs can be more responsive than formal banking channels to the needs of the local people.
Over the years, concerns have been raised about non-professional management in UCBs and that this can lead to weaker governance and risk management in these entities. RBI has also taken regulatory action on several UCBs. For instance, in September 2019, RBI placed Punjab and Maharashtra Co-operative Bank under restrictions on allegations of serious underreporting of non-performing assets. The bank could not grant loans, make investments or accept deposits without prior approval from RBI. While these restrictions were originally put in place for six months, the time frame was extended several times and has now been extended till December 31, 2021. In addition, low capital base, poor credit management and diversion of funds have also been issues in the sector.
Shrinking share in the banking sector
There were 1,539 UCBs in the country as of March 31, 2020, with deposits worth Rs 5,01,180 crore and advances worth Rs 3,05,370 crore. Even though 94% of the entities in the banking sector were UCBs their market share in the banking sector has been low and declining and stands at around 3%. UCBs accounted for 3.24% of the deposits and 2.69% of the advances in the banking sector. The Committee noted that state-of-the-art technology adopted by new players, such as small finance banks and fintech entities, along with commercial banks can disrupt the niche customer segment of the UCBs.
Figure 1: Growth in deposits of UCBs (in Rs crore)
Figure 2: Growth in advances of UCBs (in Rs crore)
Burden of non-performing assets
UCBs had the highest net non-performing asset (NNPA) ratio (5.26%) and gross non-performing asset (GNPA) ratio (10.96%) across the banking sector as of March 2020. These levels correspond to around twice that of private sector banks, and around five times that of small finance banks. The Committee noted that, as of March 2020, UCBs have the lowest level of net interest margin (difference between interest earned and interest spent relative to total interest generating assets held by the bank) and negative return on assets and return on equity.
Figure 3: Asset quality across banks (in percentage)
Sources: Report of the Expert Committee on Urban Co-operative Banks; PRS.
Supervisory Action Framework (SAF): SAF envisages corrective action by UCB and/or supervisory action by RBI on breach of financial thresholds related to asset quality, profitability and level of capital as measured by Capital to Risk-weighted Asset Ratio (CRAR). The Committee recommended that SAF should consider only asset quality (based on net non-performing asset ratio) and CRAR with an emphasis on reducing the time spent by a UCB under SAF. The RBI should begin the mandatory resolution process including reconstruction or compulsory merger as soon as a UCB reaches the third stage under SAF (CRAR less than 4.5% and/or net non-performing asset ratio above 12%).
Constraints in raising capital
The Committee also observed that UCBs are constrained in raising capital which restricts their ability to expand the business. According to co-operative principles, share capital is to be issued and refunded only at face value. Thus, investment in UCBs is less attractive as it does not lead to an increase in its value. Also, the principle of one member, one vote means that an interested investor cannot acquire a controlling stake in UCBs. It was earlier recommended that UCBs should be allowed to issue fresh capital at a premium based on the net worth of the entity at the end of the preceding year.
Listing of securities: The Committee recommended making suitable amendments to the Banking Regulation Act, 1949 to enable RBI to notify certain securities issued by any co-operative bank or class of co-operative banks to be covered under the Securities Contracts (Regulation) Act, 1956 and the Securities and Exchange Board of India Act, 1992. This will enable their listing and trading on a recognised stock exchange. Until such amendments are made, the Committee recommended that banks can be allowed to have a system on their websites to buy/sell securities at book value subject to the condition that the bank should ensure that the prospective buyer is eligible to be admitted as a member.
Conflict between Banking Regulation Act, 1949 and co-operative laws
The fundamental difference between banking companies and co-operative banks is in the voting rights of shareholders. In banking companies, each share has a corresponding vote. But in the case of co-operative banks, each shareholder has only one vote irrespective of the number of shares held. Despite RBI being the regulator of the banking sector, the regulation of co-operative banks by RBI was restricted to functions related directly to banking. This gave rise to dual regulation with governance, audit, and winding-up related functions regulated by state governments and central government for single-state banks and multi-state banks, respectively.
2020 Amendments to the Banking Regulation Act: In September 2020, the Banking Regulation Act, 1949 was amended to increase RBI’s powers over the regulation of co-operative banks including qualifications of management of these banks and supersession of board of directors. The Committee noted that due to the amendment of the Act, certain conflicts have arisen with various co-operative laws. For instance, the Act allows co-operative banks to issue shares at a premium, but it is silent on their redemption. It noted that if any co-operative societies’ legislation provides for redemption of shares only at par, then, while a co-operative bank incorporated under that legislation can issue shares at a premium, it can redeem them only at par.
Note that on September 3, 2021, the Madhya Pradesh High Court stayed a circular released by the RBI on appointment of managing director/whole-time director in UCBs. The circular provided for eligibility and propriety criteria for the appointment of such personnel in UCBs. The petitioner, Mahanagar Nagrik Sahakari Bank Maryadit, argued that the service conditions of the managing director and chief executive officer of co-operative banks are governed by bye-laws framed under the M.P. State Cooperative Societies Act, 1960. The petition noted that co-operative as a subject falls under the state list and hence the power to legislate in the field of co-operative societies falls under the domain of the states and not the central government.
Over the years, several committees have looked at the feasibility to set up an Umbrella Organisation (UO) for UCBs. It is an apex body of federating UCBs. In 2011, an expert committee on licensing of new UCBs recommended that there should be two separate UOs for the sector. In June 2019, RBI granted an in-principle approval to National Federation of Urban Co-operative Banks and Credit Societies Ltd to set up a UO in the form of a non-deposit taking non-banking finance company. The UO is expected to provide information technology and financial support to its federating members along with value-added services linked to treasury, foreign exchange and international remittances. It is envisaged to provide scale through network to smaller UCBs. The report of the current Committee recommended that the minimum capital of the UO should be Rs 300 crore. Once stabilised, the UO can explore the possibility of becoming a universal bank. It can also take up the role of a self-regulatory organisation for its member UCBs. The Committee also suggested that the membership of the UO can be opened-up to both financial and non-financial co-operatives who can make contributions through share capital in the UO.
Comments on the report of the Expert Committee are invited until September 30, 2021.