New Delhi: The Congress party-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government will not bring the much-publicized National Food Security Bill—which aims to provide low-cost food to the poor—in the winter session of Parliament beginning on Thursday.
The enactment of the legislation, promising to provide 25kg of rice or wheat at Rs3 per kg to poor households, will be further delayed because the government has not been able to overcome stumbling blocks, said K.V. Thomas, minister of state for agriculture. “It is a simple promise but a huge task is involved in this,” he said.
Implementing the promise would lead to a huge financial burden, with the government’s food subsidy bill expected to increase by 65% to Rs70,000 crore. A dispute over the size of the below poverty line (BPL) population, doubts over the sustainability of food stocks for the programme and lack of adequate storage facilities are other hurdles.
“Although the ministry had started working on the Bill since the day after the President’s policy announcement speech, we have not been able to decide the size of the BPL population,” Thomas said.
President Pratibha Patil, in her speech in Parliament in June this year, said the National Food Security Bill would “provide a statutory basis for a framework, which assures food security for all”.
However, a dispute over the number of poor in India continues. A Planning Commission estimate puts the number of BPL families at 62.5 million, but state governments estimate that this number is closer to 107 million.
“The Planning Commission had concluded the number on the basis of 1993-94 poverty estimate and the 2001 Census. It has also said that the BPL population would have come down to 40 million by this year. But fresh data from the state indicate a steady rise in it,” said a ministry official, who declined to be named.
Under the Panchayati Raj Act, the power to classify households as BPL lies with local bodies. Thomas said some states such as Andhra Pradesh and states in the North-East have more ration cards, which entitle households to subsidized foodgrain and fuel, than the number of BPL families.
Once the government enacts the Bill, it will become legally bound to provide food security, irrespective of situations such as drought. The government has to work on some mechanism to ensure an adequate stock of foodgrain.
The proposed law is in addition to existing schemes that aim to provide the poor with subsidized foodgrain through the public distribution system.
One such scheme is the Antyodaya Anna Yojana, under which around 25 million socially backward families get 35kg of rice or wheat at Rs3 and Rs2 a kg, respectively. Some states such as Tamil Nadu and Chhattisgarh have their own schemes to sell rice at Rs2 per kg. “We also have to see how the government can carry all these schemes along with the proposed legislation,” Thomas said.