New Delhi: The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) may be able to steal the thunder of the Congress party-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government on food security legislation, at least in Chhattisgarh.
There is some grudging admiration for the law that the BJP-ruled state has passed among backers of the central legislation, although they dismiss it as an election ploy ahead of polls scheduled in the state in 2013, raising the inevitable prospect of overlap.
The central food security Bill is winding its way through the parliamentary process, but with the Chhattisgarh legislation providing a legal food guarantee to almost 90% of the state’s population, the UPA may come under pressure to speed up the approval of its National Food Security Bill.
That could be critical because ahead of the next general election in 2014, the government sees the proposed programme for the direct cash transfer of subsidies (excluding food) and welfare payments as its key vote winner. The central food security Bill had gone on the back-burner because of the time it would take to be put on the statute books, implemented and its benefits made apparent.
Getting the legislation approved ahead of elections was a “smart” move by the Chhattisgarh government, said Jai Mrug, a Mumbai-based political analyst.
The National Food Security Bill—considered the brainchild of the National Advisory Council (NAC), led by Congress party chief Sonia Gandhi—was introduced in Parliament in the winter session of 2011 and is currently being studied by a standing committee.
The legislation seeks to grant priority beneficiaries the right to 7kg of foodgrain per month per person at Rs.3 per kg for rice, Rs.2 per kg for wheat and Rs.1 per kg for coarse grains. Other households will get at least 3kg of foodgrain per person at 50% of the minimum support price.
A Union cabinet minister, who didn’t want to be identified, said that despite the impact the National Food Security Bill would have on a large cross-section of society, the government had decided to adopt cash transfers as its electoral plank as there are few sessions of Parliament remaining before the election year.
Former NAC member and social activist Harsh Mander said the UPA only had itself to blame for the delay in passing the legislation. The Chhattisgarh initiative should push the central government to fast track its own legislation, he added.
“It procrastinated indefinitely on the Bill. Food security was UPA-II’s biggest programme and something the NAC took up as the first thing right after it was constituted,” Mander said. The lack of conviction in pushing the legislation through may have arisen from the government being caught between fiscal prudence and ensuring welfare of the poor, he said.
UPA-II refers to the return of the Congress-led coalition to power in 2009 for a second successive term.
Mander also said that the Chhattisgarh Bill was similar to the central government draft, but the state version has greater depth, with provisions on children, women and the destitute. It covers a large section of the population with cheap foodgrains, he said.
The Chhattisgarh legislative assembly passed the Food Security Bill, much of which is reportedly along the lines of the central draft legislation, on 22 December. The Bill is aimed at providing food and nutritional security to around 5 million families in the state and will cost more than Rs.2,311 crore.
The Chhattisgarh legislation has not only guaranteed food at subsidized rates across various categories of households such as Antyodaya (vulnerable social groups), priority and general, but has also made subsidized food a right. Failure to deliver this right has been made an offence. An overhaul of the entire public distribution system (PDS) by computerizing it and thereby making it transparent is also on the cards, along with using the unique identity, or Aadhaar number, for proper “targeting of beneficiaries”.
While the food security Bill passed by the Chhattisgarh government may not add anything new to the already “robust” PDS in the state, it is a “much better” Bill than the national draft Bill, agreed NAC member N.C. Saxena.
“Chhattisgarh has a very good PDS programme and it has nothing to do with the Bill, which has just been passed. It is more like a political ploy to embarrass the government of India,” he said. “They are a revenue surplus state and have almost achieved universal PDS, so this Bill hardly makes a difference, apart from facilitating the existing programme.”
The state BJP unit denied that the Bill was a superfluous measure.
“PDS is just a system in place. However, the Bill passed last week is a right. We have given people the right to food and it is a different matter altogether,” said Rasik Parmar, spokesperson for the BJP’s Chhattisgarh unit. “PDS makes foodgrains available to the people, but through this Bill we are assuring them that the foodgrains will reach them.”
He denied that the Bill was passed to take attention away from the Centre’s National Food Security Bill.
“Even if the central government did not have that Bill, we would have brought our version of the Bill,” Parmar said.
Saxena said that the state legislation’s features such as price, coverage, monitoring and procurement make the state legislation a “much better” one than the national Bill under consideration.
If the Centre’s 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.
Under the current PDS, the government provides 35kg of wheat and rice per month to 65.2 million below poverty line (BPL) families at Rs.4.15 and Rs.5.65 per kg, respectively. About 115 million above poverty line (APL) families get between 15kg and 35 kg of wheat and rice per month at Rs.6.10 and Rs.8.30 per kg, respectively. However, in the proposed food security Bill, there are no BPL or APL categories, only priority and general categories.