The Parliamentary Standing Committee on Food has recommended a mandatory coverage of 67 per cent of the country’s population for subsidised rice, wheat and millets under the National Food Security Bill with a reduced and uniform monthly entitlement of 5 kg per person.
As opposed to an overwhelming demand from States and civil society groups for universal public distribution system to ensure “food and nutrition security,” the UPA government’s ambitious Bill proposes coverage of 75 per cent rural and 50 per cent urban population at 2011 census figures.
Submitting its report to Lok Sabha Speaker Meira Kumar on Thursday, the panel said: “The beneficiaries should get rice, wheat and millets at Rs. 3, 2 and Rs. 1 per kg, respectively.”’
Significantly, the panel has opposed cash transfers in lieu of foodgrains till such time that all areas, including rural, remote, hilly, difficult and isolated ones, have banking infrastructure and accessibility to banks.
“The report was adopted unanimously except for one dissent note from CPI-M member T.N. Seema,” said committee chairman Vilas Muttemwar. She objected to reduction of entitlements, capping of beneficiaries, centralisation of the public distribution system and extension of benefits to pregnant women only for the first two children, saying this was imposition of the “two-child norm.”
At present, a below poverty line (BPL) beneficiary gets 7 kg of wheat at Rs. 4.15 or rice at Rs 5.65 per kg per month, while an above poverty line candidate gets 3 kg per month at half of the minimum support price of the grain. The committee has taken into account average foodgrains procurement level of 60.2 million tonnes in the last five years to reach the conclusion that it would not be feasible to maintain a distribution level of 7 kg per person in priority category and 3 kg per person in the general category as provided in the government Bill. “However, foodgrains requirement at 5 kg per person per month for all the covered population will be manageable,’’ the report said drawing a sharp reaction from the Right to Food Campaign that rejected the reduced entitlements as “unacceptable.”
Mr. Muttemwar said the Food Subsidy Bill for providing 60 to 62 million tonnes foodgrains at reduced rates was estimated at Rs. 1.12 lakh crore including welfare schemes.
The States, on whom lies the responsibility of reaching foodgrains to the beneficiaries, will identify the beneficiaries from the eligible people in the ongoing Socio-Economic Caste Census “as per the guidelines framed by the Centre and in consultation with the Centre in a fair, transparent and logical manner.” The new census has so far covered 68 per cent population. For cost sharing between the Centre and the States, the committee has recommended that based on the financial position of the States, they may be divided into Category A (performing State which should bear all costs), Category B (qualifying for 50 per cent central aid for one-time capital expenditure) and Category C (for 75 per cent one-time assistance for creation of infrastructure). However, the recurring expenses will have to be borne by the States. The panel suggested that the States should bear the cost of transportation, handling and the commission given to ration dealers or pass it on to the beneficiaries.
Describing the report as “revolutionary” and “ambitious” Mr. Muttemwar said the committee was guided by factors such as “sustainability” of the mandatory entitlements as well as the current levels of foodgrains production and procurement.
“Some States may gain and some, who have near-universal PDS, may lose, but we have recommended that the present foodgrain allocation of all States should be maintained through an Executive Order,” he said. The panel has recommended doing away with priority BPL and General (Above Poverty Line) categorisation of beneficiaries and replace it “inclusion” or “exclusion” criterion.