Key issue will be legal guarantees for food entitlements for “general” category

In what looks like more trouble for the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government, the Sonia Gandhi-led National Advisory Council (NAC) has decided to take head on the Rangarajan committee's criticism of its now-controversial recommendations on food security.

It will take the first step by presenting a point-by-point rebuttal of the panel's critique to the new Food Minister, K.V. Thomas, on February 10.

Mr. Thomas, NAC sources said, has been invited to its office for an interaction with its members so that the latter can make one more pitch to the government to accept its proposals for both the priority and general categories, so that 75 per cent of the population is given legal food entitlements.

The key issue the NAC will address is the panel's rejection of legal guarantees for food entitlements for the “general” category (earlier categorised as Above Poverty Line or APL). NAC member Harsh Mander, who will be making the presentation, told The Hindu that he believed the number of food-insecure persons in the country was much larger than those identified. “The devices the government has to identify the poor are manifestly flawed, so much so that the ones most in need tend to get left out because of lack of social, political and economic power. It, therefore, makes sense to widen the scope substantially so that most of the rural population and at least 40-50 per cent of the urban poor that lives in the slums are covered.” That was the only way to ensure that all the poor were covered. The greater the coverage, as in Tamil Nadu which has near-universal PDS (Public Distribution System), the lesser the leakages and the more accurate the targeting, he added.

The NAC also feels that there has to be a greater emphasis on increasing food production: it feels there is not just potential for it, but that an increase in food procurement itself will be an incentive for increased food production.

Budgetary implications

Of course, at the heart of the objections made by the Rangarajan panel, which was set up by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, are the budgetary implications of the NAC's food security recommendations. The Rangarajan panel has also contested the NAC's figures for population, offtake, procurement and the total cost that would be involved, with the former's figures for all these items pegged considerably higher than that of the latter. For instance, while the NAC's assessment is that the offtake will not be more than 90 per cent, based on past experience , the committee has made its calculations on the basis of a 100 per cent offtake.

The only point on which the two appear to agree is on the need to reform the PDS — of course, there are differences on how to achieve it.

The NAC is hoping, sources said, that since Mr. Thomas belongs to Kerala, a State with near-universal PDS coverage, he will more amenable to its recommendations. Eight days after the Rangarajan panel rejected its recommendations, the NAC unveiled the framework of the proposed food bill, and immediately placed it on its website for comments from the public, reflecting, as one NAC member put it, “Ms. Gandhi's determination to go ahead.”

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