Forward on food

Last Updated: Wed, Feb 20, 2013 21:11 hrs

The government has developed a fresh sense of urgency about the food security Bill; it seems to be trying to push it through Parliament as soon as possible in spite of continued disagreement about certain provisions. The ruling Congress party no doubt wants the Bill done by the elections. Passing half-baked legislation would, however, be counterproductive. After all, food security requires massive alterations to the food management and delivery system — which most states are unprepared and unwilling to undertake in a hurry. This was evident at last week’s state food ministers’ conference. Those dissenting about various provisions included almost all the non-Congress-ruled states, including Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, West Bengal, Chhattisgarh and Odisha, but also a few Congress-ruled states like Haryana and Kerala. Tamil Nadu and Chhattisgarh implied they would opt out of the law, since their local schemes were more generous than the Centre’s plans.

Of the objections raised by the states, the biggest relate to how many people would be covered and how much foodgrain they would receive. The Bill and the parliamentary panel that studied it suggest covering 75 per cent of people in rural areas and 50 per cent in towns and cities. States, however, argue that a uniform nationwide population coverage norm is unfair since it tends to treat states that have relatively more people below the poverty line (BPL) on a par with the more prosperous ones. Some states are also dismayed by the proposed foodgrain entitlement of 5 kg per head for BPL households and 3 kg for those above the line, saying that’s not enough for an average household. In addition, the shift in grain entitlement from a per household to a per capita basis, while logical and necessary, will require the review and revalidation of household data, a difficult exercise. Moreover, the identification of families for inclusion or exclusion under the new scheme, too, may be problematic in the absence of clear-cut and easily verifiable criteria for doing so. Nor is there clarity on whether the costs of handling and transportation of foodgrain, and of various other provisions of the Bill, will be borne by the Centre, or the state governments, or the beneficiaries. The states, obviously, are unwilling to take on any additional financial obligations. However, the Centre maintains – probably correctly – that the proposed measure will actually reduce the overall financial burden on the states since they will get foodgrain at prices lower than the current issue prices.

Many of the points raised by the states are not without merit. Considering that the new law will have to be implemented by the states, it may be prudent for the Centre to view them as vital inputs for improving the proposed legislation rather than as obstacles to be overcome.

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