Union Cabinet clears draft food security bill

New Delhi: Paving the way for subsidised foodgrains to poor, the government on Sunday cleared the Food Security Bill that seeks to give legal entitlement of cheaper food to over 63 per cent of the population that will cost an additonal subsidy of Rs 27,663 crore.

Under the Bill cleared at a special meeting of the Cabinet, chaired by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, each person of the priority household, similar to Below Poverty Line families under current Public Distribution System (PDS), would be supplied seven kg of rice, wheat and coarse grains per month at the rate of Rs 3, Rs 2 and Rs 1 per kg respectively.

According to estimates, the implementation of this would result in higher food subsidy by Rs 27,663 crore taking the overall figure to about Rs 95,000 crore. The Bill, considered to be the pet project of UPA Chairperson Sonia Gandhi, was announced in the election manifesto of the Congress Party in 2009 general elections.

Since September, 2009 the empowered Group of Ministers, headed by Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee, has been deliberating on it. Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar has been vocal about his criticism of the initiative due to financial burden and also about the avaialbility of foodgrains to meet the requirement under the proposed law.

The government would require 61 million tonnes of foodgrains to provide food security as against 55 million tonnes required now under the PDS. Food Minister K V Thomas, who has met senior Cabinet Minister including those from UPA allies last week to evolve a consensus in view of some differences voiced by Pawar and also Trnamool Congress seeking more time to study the Bill.

Besides cheap foodgrains to the poor, the Bill also seeks to provide minimum three kg of foodgrains per month per person under general household category at rate not exceeding 50 per cent of the Minimum Support Price.

The government has also made a special for pregnant women and lactating mothers, children, destitutes, homeless and people under starvation among others.

In rural India, up to 75 per cent of the people will be covered, with at least 46 per cent under priority households (which is same as below poverty line families in the existing public distribution system).Up to 50 per cent of people will be covered in the urban centres, with at least 28 per cent under priority category.

Talking to reporters after the meeting, Thomas said it has been decided to introduce the Bill in this session.
"It was discussed and approved unanimously. Whatever, we had proposed has been approved," he said.

Prices of subsidised foodgrains are much lower than the rate at which these are currently supplied to poor through ration shops.

Under present PDS, 35 kgs of wheat and rice per month per family is supplied to 6.52 crore BPL families at Rs 4.15 and Rs 5.65/kg, respectively.

General category would get at least 3 kg of grains at a rate not exceeding 50 per cent of the minimum support price. At present, about 11.5 crore APL families get at least 15 kg of wheat and rice per month at Rs 6.10 and Rs 8.30/kg, respectively.

Thomas had said on Saturday that the total financial liability to implement the law would be Rs 3.5 lakh crore, as funds would be required to raise agriculture production, create storage space and publicity among others.

Sonia Gandhi led National Advisory Council (NAC) and an expert committee headed by Prime Minister`s Economic Advisory Council (PMEAC) Chairman C Rangarajan had also submitted their recommendations on the bill.

The NAC had recommended legal entitlement to subsidised foodgrains to both priority and general households, covering at least 75 per cent population.

However, the PMEAC had opined that this was not feasible. Instead, they suggested that assured delivery of grains should be restricted to the really needy households and the coverage of the rest should be through an executive order.

The objective of the proposed law is "to provide for food and nutritional security…by ensuring access to adequate quantity of quality food at affordable prices, for people to live a life with dignity".

Going by the stated objective, there is a provision of meals to special group such as destitutes, homeless, person living in starvation and disaster affected persons.

That apart, there is a great focus on nutritional support to women and children in the bill. "Pregnant women and lactating mothers, besides being entitled to nutritious meals, will also receive maternity benefit at Rs 1,000 per month for six months," Thomas had said, adding that children up to eighth class would get meals.

Aiming to empower women, the bill proposes to issue ration card to the eldest female member of the family.
Among the other key provisions, the bill stipulates that the Centre would reimburse in cash in case of short supply of foodgrains to States because of fall in production on account of natural calamities such as drought and floods.

In case of non-supply of foodgrains or meals to entitled person, the concerned State would be required to provide `food security allowance`. A three-tier grievance redressal mechanism would be set up to deal with issues related to delivery of entitlements.

They are — District Grievance Redressal Officer (DGRO), State Food Commission and National Food Commission. The bill provides for penalty up to Rs 5,000 to be imposed on public servants or authority by the National and State Food Commissions if found guilty of non-compliance with the relief recommended by DGRO.