Food for security

Print edition : September 20, 2013

Congress president Sonia Gandhi coming out of Parliament House after a discussion on the Food Bill in the Lok Sabha in New Delhi on August 26. Photo: vijay verma/PTI

A tribal woman buying subsidised rice at a fair price shop under the Public Distribution System in Rayagada in Odisha. The Food Security Bill proposes to cover 75 per cent of the rural population and 50 per cent of the urban population under the Targeted Public Distribution System as a single category with a uniform entitlement of 5 kg of foodgrains per person every month. Photo: Manish Swarup/AP

Left party supporters at a rally demanding food security to all and "no to cash transfer", in New Delhi on February 26. Photo: Sushil Kumar Verma

The Lok Sabha passes the National Food Security Bill after incorporating several amendments, but the timing of its introduction is seen as aimed at gaining “electoral security”.

THE Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government was so determined to pass the National Food Security Bill (NFSB), 2013, that the monsoon session of Parliament was extended by almost a fortnight.

The government’s hurry in first promulgating an ordinance on July 5 amid wide-ranging criticism and then launching the food security scheme on August 20 accompanied by an advertisement blitzkrieg, even as the Bill was pending in Parliament, left no one in doubt that the move had a lot to do with “electoral security” in an environment in which the Congress and the coalition led by it are besieged by scams. However, despite the truncated coverage of the Bill and its continued emphasis on cash transfers in lieu of foodgrains, no political party, barring the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), opposed it although several amendments, on which a division of votes was demanded, were moved by various parties. In some cases, the Congress’ allies and a section of the opposition voted in unison.

Some opposition members opined that given the large number of suggestions pouring in and amendments moved by the government and the political parties, it was worthwhile to consider sending the Bill to a standing committee for discussion. The government was clearly in no mood to do that. Opposition MPs questioned the need for promulgating an ordinance when the monsoon session was only a month away. The Bill proposes to cover 75 per cent of the rural population and 50 per cent of the urban population under the present Targeted Public Distribution System (TPDS) as a single category with a uniform entitlement of five kilograms of grain per person every month.

After objections to the limited coverage and the creation of categories within the population sought to be covered were raised, the new Bill that came up in the Lok Sabha on August 26 did away with the categorisation as general and priority groups. The Bill guarantees 5 kg of rice, wheat and coarse grains a month at Rs.3, Rs.2 and Re.1 a kg respectively to every member of eligible households. The prices will remain the same for three years, after which they will be subject to review. The sunset clause somewhat confirmed the suspicions of the opposition that the law was aimed at winning votes in the 2014 elections and could be abandoned later. Opposition parties opposed the proposal to limit the applicability of the Bill to a three-year period.

Several State governments, including the Tamil Nadu government, objected to the unilateral manner in which the coverage was determined by the Planning Commission. In fact, a key UPA supporter, the Samajwadi Party (S.P.), said the State governments had been bypassed.

In the Lok Sabha, S.P. leader Mulayam Singh Yadav pointed out that Chief Ministers should have been consulted before the Bill was finalised. He demanded a guarantee from the Centre that it would continue to buy produce from farmers. He did not oppose the Bill but pointed out that it was moved with Lok Sabha elections in mind. He added that the basis for determining the poverty line was not clear given that the below poverty line (BPL) census and Socio Economic and Caste Census (SECC) data were awaited.

In fact, the question of Centre-State relations came to the fore in several contexts, including in the matter of fixing the price of foodgrains. In many States the prices are lower and the population covered is broader than that being proposed in the Bill. The original Bill had stipulated that the Centre would identify the households to be covered. Later it was decided that the coverage would be determined by each State but in consultation with the Centre. Some MPs felt that the government should have waited for the release of the SECC data to identify the beneficiaries with clarity.

K.V. Thomas, Minister of State for Consumer Affairs, Food and Public Distribution, admitted in Parliament that as per the provisions of the Bill, 18 States, including Tamil Nadu and Kerala, would get less than what they were already allotted under the normal TPDS. He assured the House that the normal offtake of these States in the past three years would be protected. He did not spell out how this would be done.

The Bill was seen as violating federal rights as it gave the Central government the right to notify the date for reforms in the PDS. In fact, UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi, in her speech in the Lok Sabha, pointed to the inefficiency of the PDS, which in a way justified the inclusion of the issue of reforms in the Bill. The cost-sharing ratio of the Centre and the States remains an unresolved matter in the Bill.

Universal food security

Interestingly, almost every opposition party pushed for “universal food security”. The Left parties have been articulating this ever since the TPDS, a brainchild of the Congress, was thrust upon people in the early 1990s. Even the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) demanded universalisation of food security. The party pushed for several amendments but most of them were rejected. The AIADMK demanded to know the reason for the urgency in adopting the Bill and the fate of those who were not entitled to the benefits.

Tamil Nadu, the MPs argued, had a universal system of PDS in place but the present Bill sought to reduce the entitlement in that State instead of enhancing it. Members from several parties demanded to know how the States were expected to meet the shortfalls in foodgrains with cash transfers. There was sustained pressure from the Left parties and civil society groups to include sugar, cooking oil and pulses to the basket of subsidised items.

The concerns of farmers, which were raised by the Left, the Shiromani Akali Dal and some UPA constituents, were addressed in part by changing the definition of Minimum Support Price (MSP) to mean a “guaranteed fair and remunerative price announced by the Central government, which shall not be less than the weighted average cost of production plus 50 per cent more, at which foodgrains are procured from farmers by the Central and State governments and their agencies for the Central pool”.

Following protests against the reduced entitlements, the Bill stipulates that if the annual allocation of foodgrains to any State is less than the average annual offtake of foodgrains in the past three years under normal TPDS, the allocation will be protected at prices as may be determined by the Central government and the State shall be allocated foodgrains as specified in Schedule IV. The determination of prices by the Centre was seen as violative of the federal nature of Centre-State relations.

The Bill gives State governments one year from the commencement of the ordinance to identify eligible households. Previously, they were given 180 days. The Bill makes it compulsory for State governments to appoint a State Food Commission to monitor the implementation of the Act. The Bill also stipulates that the Central government may consult State governments and by notification make rules to implement the Act.

Following protests, the provision of “ready-to-eat meals” was deleted from nutritional standards as specified in Schedule II of the legislation. Such a provision would have encouraged multinational companies in the food and nutrition sector to provide the ready-to-eat food subsided by the government.

A. Sampath, Communist Party of India (Marxist) MP, pointed out the importance of pulses in the proposed food security basket by underscoring the World Health Organisation’s recommendation that an average Indian should consume at least 80 grams of pulses every day. He said the average consumption of pulses had fallen to 60.7 gm in 1957 to 59.2 gm in 1971 and 41.6 gm in 1991. In 2001, he said the consumption of pulses was 30 gm, and in 2009, when the UPA government came to power, there had been no increase in this figure. He argued for the inclusion of sugar, edible oil, cooking oil and pulses in the TPDS basket. He said the government should provide at least 7 kg of foodgrains per person or 35 kg of foodgrains per household, whichever was higher.

He questioned the propriety of releasing advertisements on food security, especially when Parliament was discussing the Bill. He also spoke about strengthening the Food Corporation of India. The amendments moved by him included coverage of destitute persons and the entire population barring income tax payers, and the replacement of the TPDS with the PDS in the Bill. The CPI(M)’s amendment on the definition of MSP was accepted by the government though its amendment seeking to entitle “destitute persons to at least one free meal every day through a scheme formulated jointly by the Central and State governments to be funded by the Central government, which may include community kitchens run by any agency identified by the appropriate government”, was rejected.

The amendment suggesting that the “State government continue to receive the existing allocation of foodgrains” from the Central government under the present PDS and that “the Central government supply the additional grain where the requirement under this Act exceeds the present allocation” was also rejected. The amendments to reduce the price of rice from Rs.3 to Rs.2 a kg and to include provisions in case of natural disasters were also not accepted.

One positive result of the debate on the food Bill is that it has nailed the lie that Indians eat well and that the problems of malnutrition, hunger and under-nourishment are the result of poor sanitation, or even the lack of education and information about what to eat. That a minimum guarantee of “food security” was meaningless without pulses, edible oil and sugar, apart from cereals, became clear in the course of the debate.

The debate in the Lok Sabha also raised interesting questions about the poverty line; one member even said that “no one likes the statistics of the Planning Commission as far as poverty is concerned….”

The government may have scored a point by proposing to provide 67 per cent of the population with subsidised foodgrains, but the real test will be in the implementation of the decision. The Bill is likely to be passed in the Rajya Sabha, too, after some more amendments as the UPA does not have a majority in the Upper House. The Bill may be the brainchild of Sonia Gandhi, but it has taken a full five years for the concept to take shape. Besides, it is only fair to point out that it was a Congress government that introduced the TPDS two decades ago, leading to the present state of affairs. And it cannot be denied that the Left parties have always demanded a universal PDS, and the view is now finding resonance in almost every political party.

Industry reaction

According to sections of Indian industry, the Bill has dealt a body blow to public finances. The president of the Confederation of Indian Industry, S. Gopalakrishnan, said the Bill could have a negative impact on fiscal deficit. He also expressed doubts about its efficient implementation. The president of Assocham, Rana Kapoor, said the Bill would place an additional burden on fiscal subsidy.

Reacting to industry’s response, the CPI(M) pointed out that the Indian neoliberal reformers overlooked the fact that currencies of developing countries were witnessing a sharp fall owing to international uncertainties. The fall in the value of the rupee should not be attributed to the potential costs implied by the Food Security Bill, it said.

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