Opposition Steals UPA’s Food Bill Thunder

NEW DELHI (TIP): The benchmark has been set higher for the UPA’s overdue National Food Security Bill, with Opposition-ruled states expanding the coverage of cheap food grains and improvising services under the public distribution system. Chhattisgarh may have scored recently with its state food act that expands coverage to almost 90% of the state’s voters but other states are also gearing up to do more even as the central government is yet to legislate its bill that is stuck in a standing committee. The central draft envisages covering 67% of India’s population and while states are setting the bar higher.

Uttar Pradesh has sought 100% coverage while in Tamil Nadu it is already universal. The slow pace of the draft bill’s progress has frustrated Congress as the proposed law has the strong backing of Congress chief Sonia Gandhi. Take the case of Madhya Pradesh where the state extended the PDS for below poverty line rates to 71 lakh families against 56 lakh odd beneficiaries the Centre currently approves of. With a bumper crop in 2012 and a decent coffer, the state is looking to reduce prices at which it offers food grains to the poor. Others, such as BJD-ruled Odisha too are buying food grains out of their own pocket to supply to bigger number of beneficiaries than what the Centre supports.

Odisha’s BJD government may have come under the CAG scanner for altering norms, but it has been more than happy to advertise that it is buying 8,669 metric tonnes rice every month beyond what the Centre’s supplies. The state provides an additional annual subsidy of around Rs 189 crore to distribute subsidized grains. With the new BPL survey still pending, Congress’s task to churn out a law offering greater benefits to reap a political dividend could get tougher in coming days. The central government had retained flexibility in the design of the survey to prune or expand the list of beneficiaries after the raw data is available.

But pruning the numbers – already a friction point with influential chief ministers like Bihar’s Nitish Kumar disputing the Centre’s numbers — by a fiat is bound to be politically imprudent and invite a backlash. Since the time it began working on the bill, UPA and its various arms and agencies – relevant ministries, National Advisory Council, PMO and the Planning Commission – have often been at loggerheads about what was billed as ‘the’ flagship scheme for UPA2. The differences in approach, coverage and benefits is continuing. The new ‘game-changer’ social sector scheme – cash transfers – has only confounded the case further.

The government’s reluctance to provide food subsidy through cash transfers has also added greater uncertainty about the proposed law. Finance minister P Chidambaram reiterated that the government would not include food subsidy in the cash transfer scheme at the moment. But debate rages on within the government and while sections f the from civil society, including some NAC members, are opposed to the Centre’s formulations.

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