Planning Commission, NAC to see whether they can narrow down differences
In a major setback to the National Advisory Council (NAC) and the Right to Food Campaign, the Planning Commission and the government made it clear on Friday that it would be difficult to provide legal guarantees as far as food security for those living above the poverty line (APL) was concerned. Nor would it be possible to guarantee the slew of additional entitlements that the NAC had envisaged for the most disadvantaged.
In short, they said the right to food security for all citizens was impossible.
Representatives of the Commission and the government also stressed that it would be tough to set aside more than the 55 million tonnes of foodgrains currently available for the food security programme, and that it would not be easy to provide the additional Rs 65,000-70,000 crore required for NAC's dream scheme.
After day-long discussions, at which “there was an extensive hearing out of positions on both sides,” the Planning Commission and the NAC agreed to see whether it would be possible to narrow down their differences. Planning Commission Deputy Chairman Montek Singh Ahluwalia, Union Food Secretary Alka Sirohi, Women and Child Development Secretary D.K. Sikri, and Housing and Urban Poverty Alleviation Secretary Kiran Dhingra made presentations. The NAC presentation was made by Harsh Mander, convenor of the Working Group on the framework of the proposed Right to Food Security Bill.
Sonia Gandhi, who presided over the meeting in her capacity as NAC chairperson, heard both sides out, but did not commit herself either way. At the meeting on August 30, Ms. Gandhi pointed out that the poor might wonder why the rich were being given the same entitlements as them.
The burden of the arguments put forward on Friday by the Commission and government representatives was that the food security programme, as envisaged by the NAC, would have to be trimmed. Keeping in mind the availability of foodgrains and the demands being placed on the government, the NAC had to be “realistic.”
However, there was agreement that those households living below the poverty line (BPL) would be legally entitled to 35 kg of foodgrains — at Rs. 3 per kg for rice and Rs. 2 a kg for wheat. There was also a consensus on pegging the BPL figure at a number higher than the 42 per cent suggested by the Suresh Tendulkar panel — it could now be close to 50 per cent.
The differences that remain centre round entitlements for those in the APL category. While the government was willing to provide 25 kg foodgrains at 75 per cent of the Minimum Support Price (MSP) to APL families, it was made clear that it would not be possible to provide a legal guarantee for this. Sources said Ms. Sirohi pointed out that it would be difficult to make provision for more than 55 million tonnes of foodgrains a year — the NAC wanted this figure to be increased to about 85 million tonnes a year, which is difficult given the inadequacy of storage facilities.
Ms. Dhingra, on her part, while expressing her commitment to the NAC's desire to secure the nutritional requirements of those at the bottom of the economic ladder, also said it would be difficult to provide legal guarantees for these entitlements.
The NAC had suggested eight entitlements apart from an inclusive and enhanced Public Distribution System (PDS) — for child (such as ICDS) and maternal nutrition, community kitchens for those suffering from TB and HIV/AIDS, homeless children and destitute people and old age pensions.
Among those present were M.S. Swaminathan, Ram Dayal Munda, Narendra Jadhav, Pramod Tandon, Jean Dreze, Aruna Roy, Anu Aga, N.C. Saxena, A.K. Shiva Kumar, Deep Joshi, Farah Naqvi, Harsh Mander and Mirai Chatterjee. The next NAC meeting will be held on October 23.