New Delhi: The Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) on Wednesday moved a step closer to introducing its ambitious food security legislation after the coalition’s political leadership agreed to restrict the proposed universal public distribution system (PDS) to the poorest of the poor in the initial phase.
Members of the National Advisory Council, or NAC, which serves as the political interface between the government and the Congress party and is chaired by Congress president and UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi, recommended at their meeting on Wednesday that universal PDS be restricted to a quarter of the blocks or administrative areas. These 2,000 blocks are home to the poorest.
Each district is divided into a number of blocks based on administrative convenience; each block is further divided into a number of villages. According to NAC assessment, there are 8,000 blocks in the country.
In a strong political signal to the minorities, NAC also decided to draft a fresh law to deal with communal violence after it found that the existing draft legislation did not “reflect the letter and spirit of the stated objectives” laid down by its working group. These include widening the scope of the law to include sectarian violence, definitions of new crimes, setting up of a national authority, ensuring greater accountability of institutions, stipulation of national norms from rescue to restitution, specifying compensation norms and ensuring victim-witness rights.
The government, with an eye on its finances, had proposed that food security be restricted in scope only to those living below the poverty line (BPL). The Congress had, however, in the run-up to the 15th general election last year, promised universal food security.
“While time-bound universalization of foodgrain entitlements across the country may be desirable, initial universalization in one-fourth of the most disadvantaged districts or blocks in the first year is recommended, where every household is entitled to receive 35kg per month of foodgrains at Rs3 a kg,” a press release issued by NAC said.
In the remaining 6,000 blocks, coverage of universal PDS will be based on “differential entitlements”; both the quantity of foodgrains and the price will vary. “There shall be a guarantee of 35kg of foodgrains per household at Rs3 a kg for all socially vulnerable groups including SC/STs, and 25kg for all others, at an appropriate price. There would also be a category that would be excluded based on transparent and verifiable criteria,” the press release added.
Further details of this basic framework will be formulated by NAC. These criteria, a member disclosed, are to be defined to exclude the so-called creamy layer or people who do not really need this kind of subsidy. For instance, one criteria could be the payment of tax (all taxpayers would then be excluded).
The council is likely to further discuss the issue at its next meeting on 31 August.
In urban areas, the poor, identified by the Planning Commission based on the recommendations of the Hashim committee, will be eligible for 35kg of foodgrain at Rs3.
NAC also assigned to its working group on food security the responsibility of undertaking further work on measures for enhancing agriculture production, PDS and procurement reforms, integrated child development scheme reforms and maternity benefits, community kitchens and destitute feeding. It would look at systems of oversight, transparency, accountability and grievance redressal.
The food security Bill seeks to provide legal rights to the poor to be provided a fixed quantity of rice or wheat at Rs3 per kg. The initial draft of the Bill said coverage would be restricted to BPL households.
The Bill was then referred to an empowered group of ministers, which in turn asked the Planning Commission to rework the contours of the legislation. However, NAC, at its last meeting on 1 July, insisted that the entitlement should be universal. The Plan panel subsequently reworked the draft Bill accepting in principle the concept of universalization but insisted on differential pricing—one for BPL and another for above the poverty line—through PDS.
The 14-member council includes M.S. Swaminathan, Ram Dayal Munda, Narendra Jadhav, Pramod Tandon, Jean Dreze, Aruna Roy, Madhav Gadgil, N.C. Saxena, Shiva Kumar, Deep Joshi, Anu Agha, Farah Naqvi, Harsh Mander and Mirai Chatterjee. The panel was reconstituted in March.