Draft food security bill may irk Sonia, states, SC
Govt Version Diverges From Cong Chief’s Vision
Nitin Sethi | TNNhttp://epaper.timesofindia.com/Default/Scripting/ArticleWin.asp?From=Archive&Source=Page&Skin=TOINEW&BaseHref=TOIPU/2010/03/01&PageLabel=1&EntityId=Ar00103&ViewMode=HTML&GZ=T
* Centre to have final say on BPL numbers, quantum of foodgrain.
States have distributed 10cr BPL cards; Centre’s estimate is 6.5cr
** No mention of price of subsidized foodgrain, hinting Centre wants to keep option of higher price open.
Cong manifesto had said ration would be available at Rs 3/kg
*** Bill seeks to wind up Antyodaya scheme, limit guarantee to 25kg.
SC wanted govt to widen scheme and increase PDS quota to 35kg
The Bill is a result of a promise in the Congress’s election manifesto — of a law guaranteeing nutritional security for all. But the draft, prepared by the food ministry headed by Sharad Pawar, runs short of how it was visualized by Sonia Gandhi.
The draft Bill proposes that the Centre will have the final word on both the number of people in each state living below the poverty line, based on planning commission estimates, and also on the quantum of foodgrains that is to be given to the vulnerable section. This quantum has been fixed in the draft at 25kg per month, against an earlier Supreme Court directive of 35kg. And on both these counts, it is likely to attract the opposition of the states. While the states have already distributed more than 10 crore BPL cards, the Centre’s estimate of BPL families is way smaller, at 6.52 crore. Even today, the Centre distributes foodgrains under the PDS in proportion to the figure the Planning Commission generates and not what states decide by survey along with the rural development ministry.
In an earlier round of discussion with the Union food ministry, many states had taken serious objection to the Centre imposing an artificial cut-off and leaving a hefty bill to the states to bear if they decide to pass on the benefits to all the poor. But the food ministry appears to have stuck to its guns and decided not to let the control out of its hands as it would help keep the fiscal burden in check. The government also wants to maintain some flexibility on the price of subsidized foodgrain. While the Congress had said in its manifesto that the ration would be available at Rs 3/kg, the ministry is inclined not to mention an exact price so as give it the option of providing subsidized foodgrains at a higher price.
The Bill is also at odds with the Supreme Court’s directive to the government to create and widen the Antyodaya Anna Yojana (AAY), which was meant to provide subsidized food to the destitute, primitive tribes, disabled and old and increase the quota for families under the existing PDS scheme to 35kg of foodgrains per month. The Bill, however, wants to wind up the AAY scheme and keep its guarantee to 25kg.
As for the discrepancy between the Centre’s and the states’ estimate of the poor, the food ministry wants the states to bear the cost of providing food security to numbers beyond the central estimate — something that’s unlikely to pass muster with the states.
The ministry has also decided that when it comes to guaranteeing food security through various schemes, including PDS, the buck will stop with the state government. The Centre would be responsible only for procuring foodgrains, importing and maintaining stocks and providing financial compensation if it is not able to secure the supplies to states.
The bill, unlike what the Congress president had suggested in her note, limits itself to distribution of wheat and rice and does not take a wider view of nutritional security. In fact, the ministry has decided to define food security in a manner that would exclude any judiciable right to nutrition. Critics observe that the government is keen to limit its legal guarantee to merely distribution of foodgrains as it would reduce the legal entanglements over cases of chronic starvation.
The empowered group of ministers (eGOM) has also decided, unlike what the Congress president had suggested in her note, that the regular administrative officials at different levels in a district will also take over the role of appellate authorities. Sonia Gandhi had suggested that a distinct appellate system of food commissioners be appointed at state levels with powers to appoint advisors at district level as well as carry out investigations into infringement of the act.
Unlike the detailed legislation the Congress president had suggested, in order to avoid the bill getting stuck with controversies right at the beginning, the food ministry is preparing a rather bare draft, with only essential provisions. Contentious details that could slow down the UPAII’s flagship scheme will be spelt out only through schedules, rules and government notifications from time to time and not be put up for debate when the bill is shared by the food ministry for public comments.