New Delhi: The Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government will maintain the Antyodaya Anna Yojana (AAY) programme and the current allocation of foodgrains to win over state governments on the proposed food security legislation, which the centre wants to expedite.
There will now be no reduction of the 35kg foodgrain per family allocation under AAY for the poorest of the poor under the proposed flagship legislation, which the Congress party wants to get through Parliament as quickly as it can, ahead of the general elections scheduled next year.
Food minister K.V. Thomas held day-long discussions with state food ministers and officials in the national capital on Wednesday to overcome their objections and push forward the government’s ambitious food security legislation.
State officials demanded that the criteria for determining beneficiaries should be left to them and that additional expenses for implementing food security should be borne by the central government.
“As of now, the Bill is to include 67% of the total population and exclude 33%,” Thomas said. “We have already decided that the states can determine the beneficiaries from their respective states within this quota. As far as the financial burden is concerned, it’s a policy decision and the Union government will take a stand on it.”
The move to retain AAY is aimed at blunting the opposition of some states objecting to the current form of the food security legislation. States as well as several activist groups had opposed the government’s initial plan to wind up the scheme.
Thomas hoped the modifications by the centre will persuade the states to drop their objections.
“We have decided that there will not be any reduction in the current allocation of foodgrain for distributing under the public distribution system (PDS),” Thomas said.
The Bill is to be tabled in the three-month-long budget session, beginning 21 February.
“Therefore, this is the last opportunity for consultation before finalizing the Bill,” Thomas said, in opening remarks at the discussions with the state ministers.
Mint reported on 29 January that the revised Bill will be introduced in the budget session.
The National Food Security Bill was introduced in Parliament in December 2011.
The standing committee on food, consumer affairs and public distribution, which submitted its report on 17 January, proposed 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 beneficiary with a uniform entitlement of 5kg foodgrain per person a month. This would do away with the classification of priority and general households.
The original Bill had proposed an entitlement of 7kg of foodgrains per person as did the National Advisory Council (NAC), headed by Congress chief Sonia Gandhi. NAC sets the social agenda of the UPA government.
If the proposed food security Bill becomes law and is implemented in its current form, the food subsidy Bill is expected to rise by Rs.27,663 crore to nearly Rs.95,000 crore, while the foodgrain requirement would go up to 61 million tonnes (mt) from 55 mt.
Wednesday’s meeting was attended by 27 food ministers.
While Gujarat wanted a credible road map for the implementation of the food security programme, Chhattisgarh said it was keen on “wider coverage and more entitlements”.
“The proposal by the centre to cover 75% of the rural population and 50% of urban is not acceptable to us. The food security programme we have covers most of the population,” said Punnulal Mohle, food minister of Chhattisgarh, which has already approved legislation providing a legal food guarantee to almost 90% of the state’s population.
Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar asked the centre to bear the entire cost of the scheme and set up an independent BPL (below the poverty line) commission to identify genuine beneficiaries.
Tamil Nadu, however, has sought exemption from the law. State food minister R. Kamaraj said it’s keen to continue its own universal PDS, which he said “is effective, robust and time-tested”.
This is a point that state chief minister J. Jayalaltihaa has also made, the minister said.
Reetika Khera, assistant professor at the Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi, and a food security activist, said the states should be flexible in setting the criteria for identifying the beneficiaries, while the centre cannot impose a financial burden on the states.
“Some amount of cost sharing may continue as per the existing cost-sharing norms,” Khera said.
Agreeing that the infrastructure should be beefed up, Khera said that cannot be a reason to delay the implementation.
“It’s true that the storage and transportation infrastructure needs to be improved, but that is true irrespective of the food security law being implemented. The amount of foodgrain movement under the proposed food security will remain the same as it does now,” Khera said.