The promise of near-universal coverage is now nowhere in sight. And the UPA’s seemingly fretful efforts to get the measure through do not appear to be convincing

The nation is watching with trepidation the play of politics over the National Food Security Bill, which envisages food security for 67 per cent of the population by providing 5 kg of rice, wheat or coarse cereals per person per month at subsidised rates under the Public Distribution System.

For four and a half years, the United Progressive Alliance government tossed the Bill between Sonia Gandhi’s National Advisory Council (NAC) and itself, also utilising the Empowered Group of Ministers headed by then Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee and the C. Rangarajan-led Prime Minister’s Economic Advisory Council (PMEAC).

The day Prime Minister Manmohan Singh asked the Rangarajan panel to study the NAC’s recommendations on the Bill, it was clear the government was finding it difficult to deliver on the Congress’s ambitious election promise. The PMEAC pruned the NAC’s recommendations drastically.

Egged on by the Congress president, the Bill has taken some shape. But it is truncated and is a far cry from the promise of near-universal coverage that the NAC initially projected, and from what activists are fighting for universal coverage with 25 kg per household. By no stretch of the imagination can a Bill that seeks to provide 5 kg of rice or wheat to each individual, or provide for cash in the hands of the beneficiary, rid India of malnutrition and hunger.

Now, as a beleaguered UPA braces itself for elections, it is looking at the Bill as a mantra to see it through.

Frankly, nobody is happy with this Bill. Economists lament the outgo as subsidy of Rs.1,24,000 crore a year to supply rice at Rs.3 a kg, wheat at Rs.2 a kg and coarse cereals at Re. 1 a kg to identified beneficiaries. Nodal ministries are apprehensive of maintaining deliveries without first streamlining the PDS, plugging leakages and pilferage, creating storage facilities, getting the railways on board and taking care of the producers and the produce. Beneficiaries have to be identified all over again.

The Parliamentary Standing Committee to which the Bill was referred in December 2011, did away with the division of BPL and APL categories and recommended the exclusion of 33 per cent of the population.

And now, States have been asked to identify 75 per cent beneficiaries in rural areas and 50 per cent in urban areas based on parameters set. The pie has been spread thin. Some welfare categories of beneficiaries have not been included. As such, the annual requirement of grain under the Bill is 60 million tonnes as against about 56 million tonnes now.

Five kg of grain does not meet an individual’s requirement, which is assessed at 10 to 14 kg a month. Cereals alone do not meet nutrition requirements. Obviously, therefore, the Bill will only meet part of the need.

Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, West Bengal, Odisha, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh are already providing subsidised grain at Re.1 or Rs.2 a kg. Tamil Nadu has universal subsidised PDS. Chhattisgarh has passed a Bill that provides for cheap grain to 90 per cent of its population, and this is the model the Bharatiya Janata Party wants to follow in States where it is in power.

The UPA’s Bill thrusts upon States the responsibility for delivery, identification of beneficiaries, creation of storage spaces and storage. This they have to do by meeting half the cost of transportation and decentralised procurement. To do all this, the UPA will have to take political parties and State governments on board.

Opposition

Already, Tamil Nadu Chief Minister and AIADMK chief Jayalalithaa has said she does not want to be a part of the scheme of the Bill and wants to move an amendment when it comes up in Parliament. Bihar Chief Minister and Janata Dal (United) leader Nitish Kumar wants the Centre to bear the implementation cost.

West Bengal Chief Minister and Trinamool Congress chief Mamata Banerjee has accused the Congress of politicising the law in Parliament. She has also questioned how a government whose majority is in doubt can legislate on such an important issue. Declaring the Bill as “anti farmer,” the Samajwadi Party has opposed the Bill.

The Communist Party of India (Marxist) and the CPI plan to move amendments pertaining to what they see as promotion of the two-child norm through the Bill, and the curtailment of entitlements from 35 kg a household to 5 kg per person a month.

Unless it is pure posturing, the UPA’s latest move to promulgate an ordinance to fast-track the legislation makes its intentions suspect. Such an ordinance will have to be ratified within six weeks of the convening of the next session — in this case the monsoon session — of Parliament. And if the principal Opposition party, the BJP, which has opposed an Ordinance, continues to stall Parliament on this count, then this may become an excuse for early elections.

The BJP, keen to show it is not responsible for delaying the Bill, has suggested advancing the monsoon session. Some parties have sought a special session.

The Parliamentary Affairs Ministry has not responded. Instead, the Ministry nudged the Law Ministry and the Food Ministry to move a Cabinet Note for the promulgation of an ordinance. This was done on June 4, but it was not taken up.

Food Minister K.V. Thomas’s opposition to an ordinance is known. He wants a discussion and debate in the Lok Sabha, where he has moved 81 amendments to the revised Bill.

Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar has reservations on the ordinance route. He has said it would be difficult to implement any mandatory provision of grain in case of a bad monsoon.

Even Congressmen agree that the Bill should have been preceded by efforts to streamline the PDS and plug leakages that bring an approximate 40 per cent of PDS-allocated grain into the open market.

It is therefore odd that the UPA is going ahead with the Bill without taking its own allies and parties on board, and perceiving their objections as efforts to defeat its intentions.

gargi.parsai@thehindu.co.in

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