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Rediff.com  » News » All you wanted to know about the national food security bill

All you wanted to know about the national food security bill

July 04, 2013 21:12 IST

Nowhere on the planet, nowhere in mankind’s history has such an idea taken the concrete shape in form of a law. The National Food Security Bill, which will come via ordinance and not after the debate in Parliament, is an incredible economic tool to tackle the hunger of poor Indians. Also, it has already been condemned widely as a political gimmick.

According to estimate of the government, “The total estimated annual foodgrains requirement is 612.3 lakh tonnes and corresponding estimated food subsidy for the bill at 2013-14 costs is about Rs.1,24,724 crore.”

Nowhere at such a large extent has any government taken up responsibility of providing food almost for free. The national food security bill passed on Thursday by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s Cabinet has done something impossible for any rational economist to even conceive.

The ordinance is waiting for signature of President Pranab Mukherjee which will open a new chapter in history of economies of world.

Congress president Sonia Gandhi has kept up her kind of politics and pushed for the food security for the entire nation. Judging it from the strong opposition to “ordinance route” including from Bharatiya Janata Party and Left parties it is clear that Congress has scored political advantages.

Keep aside its negative or positive aspects but the Food Security Bill is a historic move because government is undertaking, legally, food and nutritional security of the Indian people. The first time, ever.

The government says, “It gives right to the people to receive adequate quantity of foodgrains at affordable prices. The food security bill has special focus on the needs of poorest of the poor, women and children. In case of non-supply of foodgrains now people will get food security allowance. The bill provides for grievance redressal mechanism and penalty for non compliance by public servant or authority.”

According to government’s calculation, it will cover two-thirds of Indian population. The government is saying through the bill “we will provide you highly susidised foodgrains.”

In terms of numbers it says, “Up to 75 per cent of the rural population and up to 50 per cent of the urban population will have uniform entitlement of 5 kg foodgrains per month at highly subsidized prices of Rs 3, Rs 2, Rs 1 per kilogram for rice, wheat, coarse grains, respectively.”

“It will entitle about two thirds of our 1.2 billion population to subsidised foodgrains under the Targeted Public Distribution System (TPDS.),” it says.

There are many grey areas and lot many confusion, though. Before the ordinance is put before Parliament for it’s approval, it’s likely that many more clarifications would come.

In fact, these numbers look scary to economists but it’s likely that many existing government schemes will be merged or tied up with the food security entitlement.

Although the fears of inflation and burden to Indian economy is real but in all likelihood if the various current schemes are taken into account then practically speaking, much less will be spent then those huge figures quoted in various assessments. However, the actual spending will be clear when the debate in Parliament takes place.

The source in government said, “The poorest of the poor will continue to get 35 kg grains per household under the Antyodaya Anna Yojana at subsidised prices of Rs 3, Rs 2 and Rs 1.”

“It is also proposed to protect the existing allocation of foodgrains to the States/Union territories, subject to it being restricted to average annual off-take during last three years,” it says.

This means that the poorest of the poor will have food under both plans but duplication will be avoided for some other categories.

It is not yet made crystal clear, yet, that how and which one of existing schemes will be merged into the food security bill. Also, the food security set up will take a long, long time to fructify. To begin with, eligible households to have cheap food will be identified by the states.

The rule will be that, “Corresponding to the coverage of 75 per cent rural and 50 per cent of urban population( which is covered under the food security bill) at an all-India level,

State-wise coverage will be determined by the Central government. “Under the new scheme, the states ‘may frame their own criteria or use social economic and caste census data, if they so desire’.

There will be a huge fight over these numbers between the States and the Centre.

The scheme has a truly admirable feature that says that the government is now bound to give, “A special focus on nutritional support to women and children. Pregnant women and lactating mothers, besides being entitled to nutritious meals as per the prescribed nutritional norms will also receive maternity benefit of at least of Rs 6,000. Children in the age group of 6 months to 14 years will be entitled to take home ration or hot cooked food as per prescribed nutritional norms.”

In the country where the mortality rate, discrimination against women and child mal-nutrition is at a shameful level, the guarantee by states is a great leap forward. If not in action, even if the intention is expressed well by the government, it must be lauded.

In the Indian federal structure, States fail the Centre’s schemes many times. Here, that tension is taken care of as far as supply of the food is concerned.

As per the new bill, “The Central Government will provide funds to States/UTs in case of short supply of food grains from Central pool, In case of non-supply of food grains or meals to entitled persons, the concerned State/UT Governments will be required to provide such food security allowance as may be prescribed by the Central Government to the beneficiaries.”

This is an unbelievably popular idea. Its potential to attract corrupt practices will be high, but poor families in the hinterland of India could not have, even, dreamt of food security allowance in absence of supply of ration. There is provision for the States, “To get assistance for intra-State transportation and handling of foodgrains.”

Also, the food security plan, “To address the concern of the States regarding additional financial burden, the Central government will provide assistance to the States towards cost of intra-State transportation, handling of foodgrains and FPS dealers’ margin, for which norms will be developed. This will ensure timely transportation and efficient handling of foodgrains.”

The government source said, “The bill also contains provisions for reforms in the public distribution system through doorstep delivery of foodgrains, application of the information and communication technology including end to end computerisation, leveraging ‘Aadhaar’ for unique identification of beneficiaries, diversification of commodities under TPDS etc for effective implementation of the Food Security Act. Some of these reforms are already underway.”

One of the most off-beat idea to be implemented in a highly patriarchal society like India is that, “Eldest women or women of 18 years of age or above will be head of the household for the issue of the ration card, and if not available, the eldest male member is to be the head of the household.”

After the Anna Hazare movement, “grievance redressal” has become important.

Under the Food Security Bill, it is proposed that, “There will be State and district level redressal mechanism with designated officers. The States will be allowed to use the existing machinery for the district grievance redressal officer, the state food commission, if they so desire, to save expenditure on establishment of new redressal set up. Redressal mechanism may also include call centers, helpline etc.”

“Social audits and vigilance committees to ensure transparency and accountability. Provisions have also been made for disclosure of records relating to PDS, social audits and setting up of vigilance committees in order to ensure transparency and accountability.” it proposed.

The above provision should be used by the aware citizen to address the most likely corruption in the food security mechanism. This Bill, “Provides for penalty to be imposed on public servants or authority, if found guilty of failing to comply with the relief recommended by the district grievance redressal officer.”

Complied by Sheela Bhatt