Food Bill | How 3 pages changed govt approach

Food Bill | How 3 pages changed govt approach

New Delhi: The government’s effort to draft a seminal law to fight hunger is flawed, inadequate, opaque and “not in the spirit of the election promises" in the Congress manifesto, says a confidential note circulated to top ministers at a late-evening meeting on Monday.

The three-page note—a copy of which is with the Hindustan Times—came from the office of finance minister Pranab Mukherjee and was handed to the select empowered group of ministers (eGoM) after it was pushed by United Progressive Alliance (UPA) chairperson Sonia Gandhi to reconsider a draft Food Security Bill.

The criticism in this note was at the centre of discussions in Monday’s meeting.

Its contents clearly set the agenda for the government: more subsidies, greater recognition of “most vulnerable sections", wide-ranging reforms of anti-poverty programmes, and greater transparency in their administration.

“The National Food Security Act must ensure food for all, addressing the concerns of availability, access and absorption," said the note. “The present draft addresses none of these sufficiently."

Seven of the eight eGoM ministers, except railway minister Mamata Banerjee, and “special observer", Planning Commission deputy chairman Montek Singh Ahluwalia, attended Monday’s meeting.

With government spending on key food-security related programmes set to exceed Rs1.18 trillion for 2010-11, the highest ever, the note points to the piecemeal approach of the version first cleared by the eGoM on 18 March, before being shot down by Gandhi.

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“The draft Bill does not cover any of the other food-security related schemes that were meant to be brought under a single umbrella, including mid-day meals, integrated child development services, pensions (old age, widow and disability), maternity benefits etc.," said the note, adding that “vulnerable groups" such as urban homeless and migrants “have not been covered in the present Bill".

The Planning Commission has now been given three weeks to prepare a note that widens the scope of the Bill.

This is a difficult task, to redraw India’s official poverty line—which considers an ability to spend Rs12 per day per person for rural areas and Rs17 per day per person in urban areas—and take the number of poor beyond the current 280 million.

The note spends the most of the space on reform of the public distribution system (PDS), the nationwide network to provide subsidized food through 0.5 million “fair-price" shops. It says PDS reforms must focus on: locally bought grain “to the extent possible"; ensure that PDS documents be made public and provided on demand within seven days, at costs prescribed by the Right to Information Act (RTI); shop management by village councils and women’s groups; include coarse grains such as jowar and bajra, beyond wheat and rice.

The note makes a special note of “weak accountability and grievance redressal" in the draft Bill cleared by the eGoM.

“The same machinery that is responsible for the implementation of the Act is being charged with the oversight/accountability mechanism," the note says. “It is this conflict of interest that has led to the failure of existing mechanism. The lessons from implementation of the RTI and NREGS (Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme) are being ignored in the framing of this Act."

Mukherjee, home minister P. Chidambaram, commerce minister Anand Sharma, agriculture minister Sharad Pawar, defence minister A.K. Antony and rural development minister C.P. Joshi were present in the meeting.

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