The long awaited Food Security Bill
The National Food Security Bill (NFSB) was passed in the Lok Sabha on August 26 via voice vote, after nine long hours of discussion. This is the first time in the history of the Indian Parliament that such a Bill has been passed, nearly two years after it was first introduced in 2011. Although various States such as Tamil Nadu and Chhattisgarh have very good public distribution schemes in place, this is the first pan-India coverage of such magnitude.
With the passing of the NFSB in the Lok Sabha, India has taken a major step towards addressing poverty.
What the Food Bill brings to the table
A huge proportion of the Indian population will benefit from the NFSB, which will be implemented by the country’s public distribution systems. Around 82 crore people (nearly two-thirds of the population) will be eligible to get food grains at vastly subsidised rates.
When promulgated, 75 per cent of eligible rural and 50 per cent of urban Indians are expected to avail of the subsidy. Subsidy means selling something at a discounted rate from the selling price in shops and markets.
Under the NFSB those eligible can buy five kg of rice at `3 a kilo, wheat at `2 a kilo and coarse cereals at `1 per kilo every month through the Targeted Public Distribution System (TPDS). The scheme aims at uniform allocation and while the responsibility of identifying beneficiaries has been left to individual States, the eligibility norms have not been clearly stated. What is clear is that it will not interfere with the Antyodaya Anna Yojana (AAY) scheme whereby the poorest of poor families get 35 kg of rice every month.
The Bill has to be passed in the Rajya Sabha as well before it can be implemented, and it is expected to be passed in the current Parliament session itself. There are challenges galore on the road ahead. The logistics of procurement, and the storage and distribution network have to be put in place. India has a very poor record in storage, and Union Minister Sharad Pawar has said that grains and perishable items such as vegetables and fruits worth `44,000 crore have rotted due to poor storage measures. Media reports have stated that in the last three years alone, over 17,000 tonnes of foodgrain rotted. To implement the NFSB, authorities need to procure and store over 62 tonnes of foodgrain, every year, once the Bill is implemented.
The cost to the government for the welfare scheme is estimated to be over `1.3 lakh crore, and when it takes off it will be the largest such scheme in the world.
The Passing of the Food Bill
The food security scheme was one of the pre-poll pledges made in 2009. After it was introduced in Parliament in December 2011, its passing was stalled for one reason or another. A parliamentary committee approved the Bill in January this year. Later, on July 5, an ordinance was promulgated.
The NFSB could not be passed in the Lok Sabha before August 26 due to disruption by parliamentarians, over various issues and scams. However, the Congress-led UPA government was determined to see the Food Bill through. Congress president Sonia Gandhi is said to be the architect of the Food Security Bill. In fact Sonia, who has never spoken in Parliament before, delivered her maiden speech by speaking up for the Food Bill, “Our goal for the foreseeable future must be to wipe out hunger and malnutrition from our country.” Her speech was part of the day-long debate and discussion in the Lok Sabha, and she took ill soon after and left the House before voting took place. The Opposition parties wanted at least 300 amendments, which were rejected. Finally the Bill was passed, despite objections from some States like Tamil Nadu.
Opposition to the Bill
Some economists have raised concerns that the NFSB will make the government spend more, which will impact the country’s current account deficit. Current account deficit is when a country spends more money importing goods and services than it earns from exporting its locally made/manufactured goods and services.
India is currently experiencing a high current account deficit, which is one of the reasons for the Indian currency getting weaker against the US dollar in recent weeks.
Another worry is that the huge demand for grains the Bill will entail could have a ripple effect on food prices globally, especially if there is a cycle of drought and/or floods.
Political parties have their own reasons for criticising the NFSB in its current form. Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa spoke about the additional cost to the State government and called for 100 per cent coverage under the food subsidy scheme.
Senior BJP leader Murli Manohar Joshi has raised questions, including how to arrive at what the requirement of ‘adequate food’ is. Should this be based on the capacity of a family to buy food or should one be guided by the nutritional requirement of a family, he wondered. During the debate Opposition leader Sushma Swaraj sought an amendment to Section 8 of the Bill.
This particular section states that in specific situations cash can be given in place of foodgrain. She also wanted Section 44 amended. This exempts the government from providing foodgrain in case of flood, drought and war. Both these amendments were not carried, since they were defeated when put to the vote.
Who are the winners?
Some economists have said that in Uttar Pradesh, around 150 million people of the total 170 million will benefit from the NFSB, while in Bihar over 87 million of the 103.8 million will be covered under the food programme.
Other States such as Punjab, Jharkhand, Assam, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Uttarakhand, West Bengal and Maharashtra will see the population benefiting. Tamil Nadu and Chhattisgarh already have a universal distribution system in place.
Opposition parties have criticised the timing of the Bill, alleging that it has been passed with an eye on the vote bank ahead of the general elections next year.
Ironing out the kinks
Reacting to the criticism from Opposition parties, Sonia said, “This legislation is only a beginning. As we move forward we will be open to constructive suggestions; we will learn from experience.” Union Food Minister KV Thomas brushed aside charges that the State governments were not consulted before the Bill was passed, and said that States were consulted on at least four occasions. He said the Centre and the States would work together. The aim of the NFSB is to wipe out hunger and malnutrition, said Sonia.