The question of whether it is possible to move — and how swiftly — towards universalising food entitlements under the proposed National Food Security Act, dominated the second meeting of the Sonia Gandhi-led National Advisory Council (NAC) here on Thursday, NAC sources told TheHindu. Universalising food entitlements will hinge on availability of food grains, and on whether the exchequer is in a position to bear additional cost of food subsidy at a time when fiscal consolidation is crucial, sources stressed, adding that maintaining strategic food reserves needs to be factored in.

The issue of universalising food entitlements is likely to be as contentious as increasing the spread of the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MNREGA) had been, during the United Progressive Alliance's first tenure. This time, too, the sources said, universalisation of food security would probably be done, “stage by stage,” though one member told TheHindu that the question of universalisation was “virtually ruled out” — an indication of the fight ahead.

However, NAC members felt there was no going back on the promise of 35 kg food grains per month for every below poverty line (BPL) household, as reducing an amount, which is currently given under the Public Distribution System (PDS), “would send the wrong message.” Interestingly, the Draft Food Security Bill, being discussed by the Empowered Group of Ministers envisages an entitlement of only 25 kg of grains, and President Pratibha Patil, in her address to Parliament on June 4, 2009, which set out UPA-II's priorities, had also spoken of an entitlement of 25 kg of grains.

At the meeting, agriculture scientist M.S. Swaminathan and social activist Harsh Mander, who constitute the Working Group on food security, highlighted the need to move towards universal entitlements, while pushing for “increasing overall availability of food grain” by “stepping up” agricultural “productivity” and “larger procurement of food grains,” said an NAC release.

Professor Swaminathan and Mr. Mander also stressed that the Bill should address “the poorest among the poor” — “disadvantaged groups such as the aged, the infirm, the destitute, the homeless, the differently-abled, street children, primitive tribes and persons suffering from debilitating diseases such as tuberculosis, HIV-AIDS and leprosy.” The need for systemic reforms to improve the functioning of the PDS was also emphasised, something that the President's address, referred to earlier, had mentioned.

In the run-up to Thursday's meeting, Professor Swaminathan and Mr. Mander had consulted senior Planning Commission officials, the departments of food, public distribution and school education, as well as the Right to Food Campaign group.

NAC secretary Rita Sharma, also informed the meeting about the progress of the NAC Working Group on the Communal Violence Bill. The group met senior officials of the ministry of home affairs, legislative affairs, and representatives of anti-communal groups. Both Working Groups will consult other stakeholders before submitting their recommendations to the NAC at the next meeting.

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