New Delhi: The standing committee on food, consumer affairs and public distribution on Thursday signed off on the Food Security Bill that nearly matches recommendations made by the Sonia Gandhi-headed National Advisory Council (NAC), in a move that would boost the prospects of the ruling Congress party at the next election.
The committee recommended that 75% of the rural population and 50% of urban India—or about two-thirds of the population as per 2011 census figures—be identified as a single category of beneficiaries with a uniform entitlement at 5kg per person a month.
The Food Security Bill had proposed an entitlement of 7kg per person just like the NAC, which sets the social agenda of the Congress party-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government, had. It had recommended 7kg of foodgrains for each beneficiary. Gandhi is chairperson of the NAC and also president of the Congress party.
“We have suggested that there should be a single category of beneficiary with uniform entitlement of 5kg per person per month,” said Vilas Muttemwar, chairman of the standing committee on food, consumer affairs and public distribution. He described the Bill as “revolutionary” and “ambitious”.
The single category is in contrast with provisions in the government’s version of the Bill—introduced in Parliament in December 2011—that had suggested the classification of beneficiaries into priority households and general households.
Briefing reporters after submitting the report to Lok Sabha speaker Meira Kumar, Congress lawmaker Muttemwar said the panel had recommended that “beneficiaries should get rice, wheat and coarse grains at Rs.3, 2 and 1 per kg, respectively”.
“The fact that the government has suggested 5kg per person means this can be increased later on,” said Himnashu, a professor of social sciences at Jawaharalal Nehru University and a Mint columnist. “But the question is how the 75% and 50% division across states should be applied because there are well-to-do states and others. The central government will have to come out with a method.”
A press statement issued by the panel said it “had also recommended that state governments be given the flexibility to extend coverage beyond the numbers prescribed under the proposed Bill out of their own resources so as to cover more population but not less population as envisaged in the proposed law”.
According to the standing committee report, the estimated requirement of grains would be 48.8 million tonnes (mt) and the subsidy would be Rs.92,499.48 crore for uniform entitlement at 5kg per person. Add to this the estimated requirement under other welfare schemes such as the Integrated Child Development Scheme and its costs, the numbers would go up to 56.8 mt and Rs.1,12,205 crore. This would represent a “marginal” increase in the government’s existing total food subsidy bill of Rs.1,09,796 crore, Muttemwar said.
The report noted that “subsidized prices could not be fixed for all times to come” and recommended a review after five years depending on production, procurement and stocks.
The panel rejected the 7kg per person provision mooted by the government given that the estimated requirement of grains would be 68.3 mt against an average procurement of 60.4 mt of rice and wheat in the past five years, Muttemwar said.
The report noted that much of the “controversy” around the identification of priority households and the “multiplicity of categories will lead to severe identification errors”.
This is the reason why “there should be a single inclusion and for this there should be a clearly defined exclusion criteria” for 25% of rural and 50% urban areas, it said, urging close coordination between the Union and state governments on this issue.
“The process should be fair, transparent, logical and based on a sound rationale,” it said.
The panel also expressed concern that the socioeconomic caste census that would give an estimate of the number of beneficiaries for various welfare schemes—including security—had not be completed.
The recommendations made by the standing committee include giving pregnant women an additional 5kg of food grains per month during pregnancy and till two years after childbirth, strengthening the public distribution system (PDS), installing closed-circuit television cameras at storage godowns of wheat, rice and sugar for reducing corruption and increasing transparency, augmenting agricultural production and storage facilities, and investing state food commissions with the power to check the quality of foodgrains before taking delivery from the Union government.
“For grievance redressal, we have asked for a mechanism at the village and block (group of villages) level,” Muttemwar said. “Beneficiaries as well as the states can reject the grains if the quality of foodgrains is below standard.”
The committee recommended that the onus for elimination of fake ration cards, maintenance of records of beneficiaries and computerization that will help minimize corruption be left to the state governments.
The panel also sought the deletion of a provision in the Bill that calls for suspension of the proposed law in case of a natural calamity. Being a “welfare state”, the government cannot shy away from its responsibilities, the report said, adding the government should be committed to meet any contingency.
“This is a key recommendation,” Himanshu said, adding that should the executive have powers to suspend the Act, it would defeat the very purpose of the legislation.
While there was unanimity among most members regarding the recommendations, the lone dissent note came from T.N. Seema, a Rajya Sabha member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) who was of the view that the coverage of beneficiaries should have been universal.
On the transfer of money in lieu of entitlements under the government’s direct benefit transfer scheme, the committee recommended that the government ensure the proper infrastructure is in place before this is implemented.
The Food Security Bill was referred to the standing committee in January last year and took on board suggestions from the agriculture, finance, social justice, panchayati raj, urban development, women and child development, and food ministries, besides experts, Muttemwar said. “We also received 150,000 suggestions from various quarters that we went through before coming to our conclusions,” he said.