Food security bill back to the drawing table

Given the resistance and current political situation, it is unlikely to come up in parliament in the budget session

prasanna

Prasanna Mohanty | February 15, 2013



Strong protest from the state governments and the political storm brewing over the AugustaWestland chopper deal are likely to frustrate the union government’s bid to introduce and pass its ambitious food security bill in the forthcoming budget session.

For one, most of the states have refused to accept the bill in its current form. They have objections to virtually every key element of the bill – uniform criteria of inclusion and exclusion of the beneficiaries which have been drawn up by the centre without consulting the states, limiting the coverage to 75 percent in rural areas and 50 percent in urban areas ignoring the fact that conditions vary in states, restricting entitlement to 5 kg of food grains for an individual (not 35 kg per household as the case now) and putting financial burden on the states in widening the coverage.

These issues were not only highlighted at the states’ food ministers meeting in New Delhi on Wednesday, at least three chief ministers, of Bihar, Chhattisgarrh and Uttar Pradesh, have written strong protest letters to the prime minister questioning the rationale of these elements. Following these developments, MoS for food KV Thomas has to assure the state governments that his ministry would take their views into consideration and redraft the bill.

So, it is back to the drawing board again. The centre is willing to concede, as the parliamentary standing committee too had suggested, that the states should have flexibility in terms of changing the criteria to identify the beneficiaries and also the number of beneficiaries (75 percent of rural and 50 percent of urban population). The problem is, while the first one is easy, the second one is not. Tamil Nadu, for example, wants to retain its universal coverage and so is Chhattisgarh which has, at 90 percent coverage, near universal coverage. The UP government has demanded 100 percent coverage of rural population and 95 percent of urban population. Reconciling these would be a tough task because it would mean higher subsidy, which the centre is extremely wary of. As it is, the finance and agriculture ministries are yet to reconcile to the extra cost the food security bill in its current form will bring.

That constraint will also come into play when poor states like Bihar insist on additional funds to revive or extend their PDS systems to take the food to the poor.

The easiest bit is to increase the entitlement to 35 kg per household or 7 kg per individual. But this would again raise the subsidy and risks the ire of the finance ministry which is on a cost cutting mode. It has already proposed a substantial cut in allocation of funds to various ministries.

Assuming that these factors are resolved, the bill needs to be redrafted, sent to the law ministry for vetting and then to the cabinet for approval. Given the constraints of presenting and passing the budgets (railway and general), the food ministry officials present the best case scenario as this: introducing the bill towards the end of the budget session. Which means, the bill can be taken up for debate and passage only in the monsoon session.

Thomas, on the other hand, has promised to quicken the process and introduce it by the end of the first half of the budget session. His officials, however, are sceptical about this possibility.

Even if one were to take Thomas at face value, the budget session is going to be a very stormy one. The AugustaWestland scam has given enough ammunition to the opposition to embarrass the government and paralyse parliament, demanding explanations and action against the commission agents and their political and other contacts in the government. The first priority of the government will be to see the budget through and the second, fend off corruption charges. The government’s hands are, therefore, full.

It would be more prudent to wait for the monsoon session to see UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi’s pet welfare project getting any chance of being taken up by parliament.
 

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