Legal entitlements will cover urban poor too

The National Advisory Council (NAC) — which has been working hard over the last month to try and narrow down its differences with the Planning Commission and the government on the contentious issue of food security — is meeting here on Saturday to look at an amended proposal. The NAC's food hardliners have finally accepted, after several informal interactions with the Commission and government representatives, that universalisation of food security will not be possible.

Sources told The Hindu that the compromise now being worked out is that legal guarantees for subsidised food grains should not be restricted only to those below the poverty line (BPL). “We are going to propose a much larger coverage of legal entitlements than those defined by the government's poverty figures,” the sources explained.

At the last meeting on September 24 — which was attended by Planning Commission Deputy chairperson Montek Singh Ahluwalia and a slew of secretaries from the ministries of Food, Women and Child Development and Housing & Urban Poverty Alleviation — a consensus had emerged on pegging the BPL figure at higher than the 42 per cent suggested by the Suresh Tendulkar panel. The figure, sources said, could now be well over 60 per cent. The attempt is also to ensure that virtually everyone in the rural areas and the poor in the urban areas are covered by legally mandated entitlements.

Commission and government representatives had also made it clear at the September 24 meeting that it would not be possible to provide legal guarantees for either food entitlements to those living above the poverty line (APL) or for the proposed eight entitlements to meet the nutritional requirements of those at the bottom of the economic ladder — apart from an inclusive and enhanced Public Distribution System (PDS). The NAC, pushing the envelope on this as well, points out, for instance, that schemes such as Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) — one of the eight entitlements — are ongoing programmes, and so should not be that difficult to provide a legal guarantee for.

At an earlier stage of the discussions, the NAC had presented two options to the government. One was a system of entitlements for the majority of the population whereby 80 per cent of those living in rural areas and 33 per cent of those in urban India would be entitled to a monthly 35 kg of food grains at Rs.3 a kg (per family). The second option was a differentiated system of entitlements through which those living below the poverty line (pegged at 42 per cent) would get the same. In both scenarios, those who did not fall into the circle of the most vulnerable would be entitled to 25 kg of food grains every month.

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