Government plans to revamp proposed food security Bill

Government plans to revamp proposed food security Bill

New Delhi: Ahead of next year’s assembly elections, the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government plans to revise a proposed food security law to bring it in line with a previous draft that is deemed more liberal, and expedite its execution.

Congress president Sonia Gandhi, who also heads the National Advisory Council (NAC) that drafted the initial National Food Security Bill, has suggested some crucial changes to the version that was made public by the food ministry.

Gandhi’s proposals include universal coverage of pregnant and lactating mothers, minimum 3kg rice per person monthly in the general category, inclusion of “destitutes" as a new class of beneficiaries, and provision of nutritious food—instead of just foodgrains—to children below 14 years of age.

“I have already held discussions with Prime Minister (Manmohan Singh), finance minister (Pranab Mukherjee), the Planning Commission and other officials about the Bill," food minister K.V. Thomas said. “The government has agreed to incorporate the proposals."

The fresh Bill, incorporating Gandhi’s proposals, will be drafted within a week and sent to the cabinet for approval. It is expected to be introduced in Parliament during the winter session. The government plans to start distributing foodgrains as proposed in the Bill soon after that, even though it will go to a parliamentary standing committee for further deliberations, said an official familiar with the development, asking not to be identified.

Gandhi has asked the government to form the rules of the legislation and bring them along with the new Bill when it is introduced in Parliament to avoid delaying the process. She has also sought to do away with the provision that insists on states to modernize the public distribution system (PDS) to avail the benefits of the Bill, as currently prescribed.

The move comes ahead of tough electoral battles for the UPA in 2012. The alliance has not performed well in assembly elections and bypolls this year on the back of corruption charges against many of its leaders, and faces a rejuvenated opposition in the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

A number of states will vote to elect new assemblies next year, including Uttar Pradesh, the country’s most populous state, where Gandhi’s son and Congress general secretary Rahul Gandhi—viewed as the party’s prime ministerial candidate in 2014—is himself leading its campaign.

The revised Bill will cost the government an estimated 3.5 trillion to implement the redrafted Bill, Thomas said.

He, however, added that the food subsidy component will just be 1 trillion.

“At present, the government provides 63,000 crore. The rest of the amount will be spent on improving the public distribution system, enhancing agricultural production, improving procurement and storage facilities, etc. So the extra amount on the food subsidy will just be 40,000 crore." Thomas said.

The government has to anyway focus on agriculture as well as procurement and storage, especially at a time when when countries are looking up to India for rice and sugar, he added. India has recently been approached by Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Mauritius and some African countries for rice and sugar.

The food security legislation was promised by the Congress in its manifesto for the 2009 general elections and reiterated by President Pratibha Patil in her address to a joint session of Parliament that year.