New Delhi: The politically sensitive food security Bill could be taken up by Parliament in the first part of the budget session, set to start next month, after the food ministry took a remarkably brief one week to consider and accept almost all the recommendations on the legislation made by the standing committee.
The move is yet another manifestation of the ruling Congress party’s political agenda dominating the policy actions of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) that it heads as the country prepares for a series of state polls running up to the general election due next year.
The Congress renewed its pledge to get the food security Bill that seeks to provide subsidized foodgrain to the poor passed at a conclave in Jaipur earlier this month that set the political agenda for the party and the government.
Minister for food, consumer affairs and public distribution K.V. Thomas held discussions with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh , Congress president Sonia Gandhi and finance minister P. Chidambaram last week on the recommendations of the parliamentary standing committee.
“The government is keen to expedite the process to get the Bill passed in Parliament as early as possible,” said a top official familiar with the developments. The official, who did not want to be identified, added that the government would take up the Bill in the first part of the budget session, which is expected to begin by mid-February.
The UPA government reiterated its commitment to put “food on everybody’s plate” in a newspaper advertisement published on Monday.
The National Food Security Bill was introduced in Parliament in December 2011. The standing committee on food, consumer affairs and public distribution submitted its report on 17 January.
In its response to the recommendations of the standing committee, the department of food hasn’t said whether cash transfer would be adopted in lieu of the food subsidy.
“The provision in the Bill for cash transfer, among other alternatives such as food coupons, in lieu of foodgrains is only an enabling provision, which government may introduce after careful examination of all its aspects,” said the food ministry report, a copy of which was reviewed by Mint.
The direct payment of subsidies happens to be another key element of the recent policy changes that are part of the Congress party’s bid to make itself electable again.
Pointing out that cash transfers won’t solve the various problems associated with the public distribution system (PDS), the parliamentary panel said the introduction of cash transfers is not “desirable”.
The food ministry hasn’t taken a decision on the status of the Antyodaya Anna Yojana (AAY), the existing food security programme for the poorest of the poor, under the Bill.
The ministry has appreciated the merit of the parliamentary panel’s suggestion to do away with the classification of beneficiaries into priority households and general households. The panel 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 beneficiaries with a uniform entitlement of 5kg foodgrain per person a month.
The original Bill proposes an entitlement of 7kg foodgrain per person as did the National Advisory Council (NAC), which sets the social agenda of the Congress-led government. NAC is chaired by Gandhi.
The department noted, however, that “at the current level of production and procurement”, it is not possible to implement universal PDS even with an entitlement of 5kg foodgrain per person per month.
The food department welcomed the “simpler framework”. However, it added: “Existing AAY households which are entitled to 35kg per month at Rs.2/3 per kg of wheat/rice, would however, be net losers as their entitlement gets reduced without any gain in terms of issue price.”
The department said AAY households’ entitlements have to be protected, but it will “create an additional category with associated problems relating to their identification, etc.”. But it further said: “This fact needs to be kept in mind, as a single category of beneficiaries with similar entitlements definitely has the advantage of simplicity in implementation.”
The department of food also expressed its inability to oblige with the parliamentary panel’s suggestion that PDS should provide pulses, oil and millet in addition to wheat and rice in order to address the problem of malnutrition.
“There is huge dependence on imports for meeting the domestic demand for pulses and edible oils. In the absence of assured domestic availability of these commodities, it is not possible to confer a legal right for their supply,” the report said, adding that the government was implementing schemes for the supply of pulses and edible oils at subsidized rates to targeted beneficiaries.
The parliamentary committee recommended scrapping the provision in the Bill that proposed 5kg of foodgrain for children below two years as they will be fed by mothers who have already been recommended an additional 5kg of foodgrain for two years after delivering a child.
The department of food, however, did not agree with this, saying that “keeping nutrition consideration in view”, it would not be desirable to replace take-home rations (THR) by an additional quantity of foodgrain.
While the panel said children above two years can be provided mid-day meals in all schools instead of THR, the department said: “As pre-schooling facilities are not available in all the schools covered by the Mid Day Meal Scheme, it will not be possible to cater to children below six years of age under this scheme. This will be a setback to the government’s efforts towards universalization of primary education.”
The department has also sought the views of the ministries of human resource development, and women and child development on this.
The lack of clarity on AAY is “very serious and worrying”, although the rejection of the suggestion to scrap THR is a positive signal, said Reetika Khera, assistant professor at the Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi, and also an activist who has been working in the field of food security. “Ensuring the protection of the AAY is very critical in terms of food security,” she said.
Like many other activists in the food security field, Khera opposes the cash transfer scheme for food security.
“The government was showing seriousness in its intentions towards the food security. However, the hype (about) cash transfer to replace the food subsidy in spite of the failed pilot projects was worrying. The parliamentary committee’s rejection of the cash transfer scheme for food security is slightly reassuring now. However, the government seems to have kept the door open for it even now,” she added.