Attempts by the Congress-led UPA government to adopt the ordinance route to pass the Food Security Bill fail as the opposition parties are more or less united in seeking a Bill that provides universal PDS coverage. By T.K. RAJALAKSHMI

THE National Food Security Bill (NFSB), 2013, touted as the biggest game changer for the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government in the 2014 parliamentary elections, will go through yet another round of discussions before it is placed before Parliament in the monsoon session or in a specially convened session. The Bill was cleared by the Union Cabinet on March 19 and was tabled in Parliament on March 22 in the Budget session itself. It purports to cover 67 per cent of the population, providing priority households 5 kilograms of foodgrain a person every month, or 25 kg for an average family of five.

Repeated attempts by the Congress to push the Bill through in the form of an ordinance did not succeed, with its allies, the Nationalist Congress Party, the Rashtriya Lok Dal, the National Conference and the Indian Union Muslim League, opposing it. Expressing strong reservations over the Bill, the Samajwadi Party, which is supporting the UPA from outside, described it as anti-farmer. It is learnt that there were divisions within the Union Cabinet on using the ordinance mode. On June 13, a three-member committee comprising Home Minister Sushil Kumar Shinde, Parliamentary Affairs Minister Kamal Nath and Food and Civil Supplies Minister K.V. Thomas was constituted to hold consultations with the opposition to evolve a consensus on convening a special session of Parliament for the Bill’s passage.

The Centre moved about 55 amendments, which it claimed were based on the recommendations of the Standing Committee and views expressed by several stakeholders. The automatic exclusion criteria would keep a fairly significant section of people out of the Public Distribution System, or PDS: 25 per cent of rural and 50 per cent of the urban population.

The priority and general classifications have been done away with, which gives the false impression that the scheme is universal. The amended Bill seeks to provide a uniform allocation of 5 kg of foodgrain to a person at a fixed rate of Rs.3 for 3 kg of rice, Rs.2 for 2 kg of wheat and Re1 for 1 kg of coarse grains covering 67 per cent of the population (75 per cent of rural and 50 per cent of urban population). There is no change in the supply of 35 kg of foodgrain a month to every Antyodaya household.

Externally, the government blamed an intransigent opposition for stalling what it called an important piece of legislation and even tried to get the Bill passed in its present form by enlisting the support of high-profile individuals such as Nobel laureate Amartya Sen and some “civil society” organisations. These attempts failed.

As it is a one-of-its-kind Bill, seeking to make the right to subsidised foodgrain legal, it has to be comprehensive. However, the Bill in its present form with its exclusionary criteria is far from comprehensive.

Minimalist provision

Ironically, although the Bill’s objective is to “provide for food and nutritional security in human life cycle approach, by ensuring access to adequate quantity of quality food at affordable prices to people who live a life with dignity and for matters connected therewith”, its minimalistic provision of 5 kg to each individual does not guarantee food security, leave alone nutritional security, which would entail a basket of food items that go beyond cereals. The entitlement of 5 kg is far below the food requirements prescribed by the Indian Council for Medical Research (ICMR)—14 kg for an adult and 7 kg for a child. It also runs contrary to a Supreme Court ruling that below poverty line (BPL) households should not be given less than 35 kg a month. This entitlement covers only 10 per cent of the population, that is, families under the Antyodaya scheme.

Several States have food security programmes that are much better than what is being offered in the Bill. Moreover, the Left parties, which were instrumental in the UPA government launching major welfare measures such as the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS) and the Forest Rights Act, have opposed the Bill. They are planning to move amendments. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which was not opposed to the Bill initially, has now announced that it will move amendments. BJP president Rajnath Singh has termed the ordinance route “undemocratic”.

The Biju Janata Dal, the Trinamool Congress and the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam also plan to move amendments. Chhattisgarh’s BJP Chief Minister Raman Singh wrote to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh suggesting, among other things, that the entitlement of foodgrain be made on a per household basis instead of per capita basis and that the limit of entitlement to eligible families be raised. He reminded the Prime Minister of the recommendation of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Food, Consumer Affairs and Public Distribution that the Centre work out State-specific exclusion criteria in consultation with State governments in a transparent manner while ensuring that the overall exclusion at the national level does not exceed 25 per cent in the case of rural areas and 50 per cent in the case of urban areas. The Bill seems to have incorporated this recommendation in part but has done an overreach as far as principles of federalism are concerned.

State governments' reservations

The State governments that already have a better system and coverage in place have expressed their reservations about the Bill, which stipulates that the percentage coverage under the Targeted Public Distribution System in rural and urban areas shall be determined by the Central government and the total number of persons covered will be according to the Census estimates.

Raman Singh pointed out that the exclusion criteria should be fixed on the basis of the socio-economic conditions of every State. In his letter to the Prime Minister, he said: “Instead, the exclusion limit for a State, if at all, should be fixed keeping in view the socio-economic conditions of the State.” The provision of entitlements on a per capita basis would result in reduction of the entitlements of a large number of poor families with fewer than five members. “This would be detrimental to ensuring the food security of such poor families. Therefore, the entitlements should be provided on a per household basis and not on a per capita basis,” the letter said. He also argued that the meagre allotment of 5 kg a person would not be sufficient to ensure food security in a meaningful way. He suggested a monthly provision of 35 kg for every poor household, which is the position the Left parties have taken, although they are pushing for a universal PDS without the exclusion criteria.

Brinda Karat, Polit Bureau member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), said: “It was surprising that the government was planning to take the ordinance route. We opposed it. For four years the government did not move. For the past two years, six crore tonnes of foodgrain have been rotting in the godowns and the government was unconcerned, and now they do not even want to wait for a month. The problem with the Bill is that it excludes 50 per cent of India’s urban population with a new automatic exclusion category. At a time when the number of urban poor is growing and a majority of the labour force is in the unorganised sector without a guaranteed income, it is highly unfair to have an automatic exclusion category. Similarly, in the rural areas, there is an automatic exclusion category of 25 per cent. In other words the discredited system of targeting forms the basis of the Bill which will now become legal. We have moved amendments.”

The cost-sharing mechanisms between the Centre and the State, too, were problematic, she said, based as they were on a principle of “I decide, you pay”. The CPI(M) plans to move an amendment demanding that all cost-sharing be done in consultation with the State governments. The per capita entitlement would be grossly unfair to families that get 35 kg under the PDS—in Kerala, for instance. The Left parties are opposed to the introduction of the scheme of direct cash transfer in the PDS, which they say is a ploy to do away with the system itself and force people to purchase foodgrain from the open market. This will in effect affect the farmers as procurement for the PDS will come down.

Left for universal PDS

The Left parties want nothing less than a universal PDS where every family gets 35 kg of foodgrain on the basis of the calorific criteria of the ICMR. One positive feature of the Bill is that it has done away with the two-child norm, which was earlier the criterion for excluding families with more than two children and as such, pregnant and lactating women, who were entitled to a free meal at the local Anganwadi centre and a maternity benefit of not less than Rs.6,000 prescribed by the Central government.

The Bill in its new avatar lacks a time frame for implementation. It has dropped the idea of providing community kitchens for the destitute and those on the brink of starvation.