Foodgrain entitlement programme to start in the 150 poorest districts in the first year

The Sonia Gandhi-led National Advisory Council (NAC) is yet to reconcile the government's assurance of a monthly provision of 25 kg of foodgrains for every family with its desire to enhance it to 35 kg. Nor has it been able to resolve the contentious question of dual pricing — Rs. 3 a kg for the poor (with their numbers yet to be estimated) and a price close to the Minimum Support Price (MSP) for the rest. The only settled issue appears to be that the programme will start in the 150 poorest districts in the first year and then gradually cover the entire country.

Faced with strongly-stated, but conflicting, suggestions from the government, the Planning Commission and the Right to Food (RTF) Campaign, the NAC's Working Group on Food Security, headed by retired civil servant and human rights activist Harsh Mander, has now drawn up a framework which presents “a set of scenarios” on food security, prior to drafting a Bill on the subject. This is to allow the NAC to look at the alternatives, as well as the question of availability of foodgrains storage, given the current state of procurement, and the state of the Public Distribution System (PDS).

The framework will be discussed by the full NAC when it meets here on Monday, and will try to resolve the contentious issues so that a draft Bill can be drawn up.

The focus of the framework is on the NAC's holistic approach to the issue, taking on board concerns about addressing the nutritional needs of the most vulnerable, and suggesting eight different entitlements for these sections apart from the benefits flowing from the PDS. These will include comprehensive nutrition support schemes for infants, pre-schoolchildren, schoolchildren, welfare hostel students, adolescent girls, pregnant women, street children, the homeless, the aged and the infirm, the differently-abled, those living with leprosy, TB and HIV/AIDS etc., together with community kitchens and feeding destitutes.

Universal right

If the Empowered Group of Ministers on food security is opposed to the universal approach, and wants the Bill limited to giving 25 kg of foodgrains to those living below the poverty line (BPL), citing paucity of funds and foodgrain, the Planning Commission has taken a different position. Commission member Abhijit Sen says it is immaterial whether the government eventually settles for a monthly entitlement of 25 kg or 35 kg per family. What is important, he told The Hindu, is that if food security is to be enshrined as a right, it has to be universal. “If you are taking the rights approach, the law must be universal in scope. Otherwise, the courts will be full of cases relating to who is poor and who is not.”

He also points out that if it is to be a universal right, there should be one price, as the BPL/Above Poverty Line distinction divides society, even though he admits that in practice, these distinctions get blurred, as the targeting framework is weak. “Nevertheless, there should be one price at a PDS shop, otherwise, that will become a source of corruption,” he stresses.

However, he adds that providing grain at Rs. 3 (a figure derived from the price at which Antyodaya beneficiaries — the most vulnerable — get foodgrains) is not economically viable. The correct way, he suggests, is to provide grain at a price reasonably close to the MSP, for which a small subsidy would be required — rice, say at Rs. 12 a kg and wheat at Rs. 8/9. In a normal year, most people, Dr. Sen argues, would not exercise their right to these foodgrains. Of course, in years when the market price shoots up for any unforeseeable reason, more people will avail themselves of the PDS and “the government must be prepared to meet that contingency.” But to ensure that the poor are taken care of, a concession could be extended to them so that they pay only Rs. 3. They could be given smart cards, and all card holders can present their cards at the ration shop, pay Rs. 3, and the shopkeeper can, thereafter, claim his subsidy from the government on the basis of the grain he has sold to such cardholders. The card would not be a right, only something that the poor would be entitled to.

“With a universal right to get 25 kg of foodgrains at one price — somewhat less than the MSP — plus a mechanism to identify the poor who can even get 35 kg at a subsidised rate,” Dr. Sen says, “the government will be able to do with the 55 million tonnes of foodgrains that it annually procures.” Can that be raised to 85 million tonnes — the figure the government and the NAC are touting as needed for universal coverage? Yes, he says, given that the total production is 170 million tonnes. There should be no physical difficulty in procurement, he says, but points out that it would take a Herculean effort on the part of the government: it would have to create a much larger infrastructure, and given that there aren't sufficiently equipped godowns for even the current offtake, does this look likely?

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