New Delhi: Prospects for the National Food Security (NFS) Bill—United Progressive Alliance (UPA) chairperson Sonia Gandhi’s dream legislation—haven’t looked better. Food minister K.V. Thomas, in charge of fine-tuning the contours of the Bill, is confident of steering it through Parliament during the budget session. In an interview, Thomas said the Bill isn’t merely about wider coverage, but about making the Right to Food a legal entitlement. Edited excerpts:
While you have explained that the Bill will be based on inclusion and exclusion criteria—67% included, 33% excluded (instead of the rural-urban classification)—how will you determine the share of each state?
Foremost, we will protect the states’ current allocation under the TPDS (targeted public distribution system) scheme. Secondly, instead of classifying the coverage as 75% of the rural population and 50% of the urban population, it will now cover 67% of the overall population—which means 67% will be included and the rest will be excluded. In that classification of including 67% of the population, the proposal is to protect the AAY (Antyodaya Anna Yojana, a scheme to provide foodgrains to the poorest), which is about 2.52 crore (25.2 million) families who currently get 35kg. We are waiting for the Planning Commission to give the guidelines on how this inclusion-exclusion is to be done. It will be up to the state to decide on the criteria of the beneficiaries.
Are all the states on board now? States such as Tamil Nadu, West Bengal, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Chhattisgarh have voiced reservations.
There are different opinions, but suppose the TPDS system continues, what will be the position of the states? The states will get rice according to the BPL (below poverty line) system at Rs.5 per kg and wheat at Rs.4 per kg. But if the NFS Bill is approved, they will get rice at Rs.3 per kg and wheat at Rs.2 per kg, which is cheaper. Clearly, they will get a financial advantage under the National Food Security Bill. Naturally, they should agree. Keeping the benefits in view, I think all the states will come on board. (Bihar) chief minister Nitish Kumar has already given his support. States like Tamil Nadu are going to benefit more from this scheme as the state government’s current financial burden will be reduced.
UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi suggested that 90% of the population in 13 states and 75% of the population in 250 backward districts be covered. Will this be possible?
It may not be possible. There are some problems. We are trying to find a mechanism by the Planning Commission for the coverage.
You have said the additional subsidy burden on account of the food security law’s implementation is estimated at Rs.20,000 crore. Will the financial burden be limited to the subsidy burden alone?
The total subsidy for foodgrains under the food security Bill will be around Rs.1,20,000 crore (Rs.1.2 trillion).
Some states, however, have demanded that the entire economic burden for the Bill’s implementation be borne by the Centre, including additional warehousing, storage and transportation costs.
At present, the commission as well as the transportation charges are either borne by the state or passed on to the consumer. As the states are getting some financial benefit (under the new law, as against TPDS), I think the states should bear the burden. However, we are not adamant on it. We will discuss with the states and find out a formula. But our intention is that this commission and transportation charge should not be passed on to the consumer.
Are you willing to share these costs?
We have an open mind on that, but naturally one cannot forget that states are getting financial benefit.
Will the Centre finance warehouses and storage expenditure?
For warehouses, central funds are already available under schemes like Rural Godown Scheme, Nabard (National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development), Rashtriya Krishi Vikas Yojana; they should make use of these schemes. The Centre will not construct warehouses; it is the states who should do it.
How fast is the process of finalizing the contours of the Bill moving?
Once we get it vetted by the law ministry and get the different ministries’ opinion, it will straightaway go to the cabinet. We are proposing to bring it in the first half of the budget session, then in the second half we can have a discussion and get it passed. The advantage is that the main opposition party, the Bharatiya Janata Party, has supported it.
Are you seeking a higher allocation of funds for agriculture in the coming fiscal?
We are one of the largest producers of foodgrains because we have made huge investments, and that should be sustained. Investments are necessary not just to implement the food security Bill, they are required anyway.
How much foodgrain is required for the implementation of the food security Bill? Is it the same as that under TPDS?
May be slightly more, around 3 million tonnes (mt) more. It should be between 62 mt and 64 mt.
How much time will you give the states to prepare for the implementation of the Bill?
Reasonable time has already been given. The Bill has been under consideration for over four years. I expect the states to prepare in one or one-and-a-half years, though we are not going to take an adamant approach by insisting that states implement it right away.
What in your opinion are the major hurdles for the implementation of the Bill?
The areas we need to focus on are procurement, storage and distribution. Until five years ago, we had capacity of only 55 mt. I have increased the capacity to 75 mt now. But last year, foodgrain storage was 82 mt. In fact, wheat storage alone last year was 39 mt and this year it is expected to be 44-46 mt. Add to that, there is no limit on my procurement. I have to procure whatever comes into the market and that is the main challenge.
We have also brought down the wastage from 2.5% to 0.1% (of foodgrains) over the last five years, but we will have to go further. I have also started an operation called “clean FCI” (Food Corporation of India)—to clean all the godowns. It is an exercise that will take two years to complete. Once it is done, we will know what is the actual wastage.
Can you explain the cash transfer aspect of the food security Bill?
The cash transfer scheme has to be introduced carefully. We can start the cash transfer scheme only after at least 90% of the beneficiaries have bank accounts and when there is end-to-end computerization. The cash transfer scheme, however, does not mean that we are giving cash. We will continue to procure foodgrains, transfer and distribute them. What we are proposing is, for example, for rice we will give Rs.20 to the beneficiary and he can add Rs.3 from his pocket and purchase 1kg of rice from the fair price shop (FPS). Since the system will be computerized, we will know that a certain beneficiary has purchased rice from the FPS, and that will get adjusted in the quota. If the beneficiary does not purchase foodgrain with that money, after two months he will stop getting the cash. That is why end-to-end computerization is a prerequisite. This infrastructure may take two more years.
What would you say is the spirit of the Bill—is it making food a legal right, increasing coverage, or improving distribution?
The spirit of the Bill is to make the Right to Food a legal right. No other country gives this right. What is also important is that this Bill recognizes the mother as the head of the family. No other country has this system; in fact, they are sending their delegates to study our system.