The programme to legally provide subsidised foodgrains to beneficiaries under the proposed National Food Security Act is an agenda over which senior ministers of the United Progressive Alliance government are losing sleep and finding it difficult to enforce within the existing public distribution system (PDS) full of loopholes.

Union Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee on Wednesday said when he thinks of the subsidies to be provided he loses his sleep. The food subsidy bill — when the proposed Act comes into play — is expected to be over Rs. one lakh crore. The Act seeks to provide legal entitlement to subsidised foodgrains to 75 per cent rural and 50 per cent identified urban population.

“As Finance Minister, when I think of the huge subsidies to be provided, I lose my sleep. There is no doubt,” he said here at a conference on ‘Targeted Public Distribution System and Storage' convened by the Union Food and Public Distribution Ministry. State Food and Agriculture Ministers are attending the two-day conference.

Terming the subsidised food security programme a “gigantic social responsibility”, he said after 65 years of Independence people were not ready to wait and were eager for empowerment through entitlement backed by legal enactment much as the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, that had set a benchmark in rural wages.

“The success of the programme will depend on how collectively political and administrative wisdom will rise to the occasion,” Mr. Mukherjee added.

At the same conference, Union Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar pointed out that it will be difficult to implement the proposed Act under the present system and suggested massive reforms in the PDS.

“I will be failing in my duty if I do not emphasise the fact that the Food Security Act will never succeed in achieving its goal in letter and spirit, if we try to push the same through the existing PDS apparatus,” he said, adding that a massive “process re-engineering” was required to make it work.

The Minister said notwithstanding his reservations about the Food Security Act, his concern was whether the existing mechanism was compatible with the spirit of the Act.

“At this juncture, we have serious limitations on all fronts like capacities of mandis, financial position of State agencies, manpower, quality inspection mechanism, storage and movement. Even at the level of operation, the railways are finding it difficult to handle the movement,” Mr. Pawar said, adding that a massive programme to enhance foodgrains output would require huge investments in irrigation, power and fertilisers.

While admitting that the task was complex, Minister of State for Food and Public Distribution K.V. Thomas said that the conference had been convened so that the Centre and the States could collectively find a roadmap to achieve their common objective.

There were shortcomings in storage capacity, transportation and distribution with minimal wastage and in the coming months, the priority would be to enhance temporary and permanent storage capacity as well as to modernise the system. About 2.2 million tonnes capacity will be added by March.

Food Secretary B.C. Gupta called upon States to “spend time” on modernisation and computerisation of the PDS to stem the scope for leakages and diversion of subsidised foodgrains from the system.

Food Corporation of India Chairman Siraj Hussain emphasised on decentralised procurement from non-traditional states like Assam, Bihar, Jammu and Kashmir, Jharkhand, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal. Though Orissa, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Kerala, and Tamil Nadu had increased their procurement substantially, a fool-proof system for quality control and correct recording of mandi arrivals was missing in most States.