Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Food not on platter!

With policy-makers sharply divided, the country’s wait for Food Security Bill gets longer

Sopan Correspondent / New Delhi

An expert committee of the government, headed by C Rangarajan, chairman of the Prime Minister’s Economic Advisory Council, has said the provisions envisaged by the National Advisory Council (NAC) for the Food Security Bill may be difficult to implement. It said the provisions have to be re-worked and fine-tuned due to non-availability of foodgrain, the potential distortion of open market food prices and the huge implications entailed by subsidy.

The committee, the report of which has been made public, said it will not be possible to implement NAC recommended food entitlements for either of the two phases and has pointed towards the ground economic, agricultural and storage facilities which are far from satisfactory.

As per the NAC recommendations, 75 per cent of the population was to be covered in phase-II in 2013-14. Against these, the Rangarajan committee has recommended assured delivery of wheat at Rs 2 per kg and rice at Rs 3 per kg to about 46 per cent of rural and 28 per cent of urban population.

The committee also warned against shortfall in procurement and said a larger procurement has danger of distorting the food prices in the open markets. It estimated the subsidy burden under the scheme to be Rs 92,060 crore in the final phase, against NAC projections of Rs 79,930 crore and said that the actual subsidy burden would be higher. The large food grain procurement would also require higher minimum support prices and imports, which would increase the fiscal burden.

Experts have criticised the report saying the Food Security Bill was important in the country and is a must. NAC members M S Swaminathan and Jean Dreze have come out strongly against the recommendations and underlined the need for a food security law in the country. Another NAC member NC Saxena too voiced his opposition to the position taken by the committee saying he was opposed to the diluted implementation of the proposal.

The Rangarajan panel has suggested long-term measures, including increasing foodgrain production, creating a stable procurement regime, comprehensive computerisation of PDS, introduction of smart cards for the beneficiaries and tasking the state governments with the identification of beneficiaries. It has also suggested a different entitlement, less than that of the NAC recommendation.

In the corruption-ridden Public Distribution System at present, the government provides 35 kg of food grains to 6.52 crore families below poverty line through ration shops. Wheat is provided at Rs 4.15 per kg and rice at Rs 5.65 per kg. Ironically, it was the poll promise of the UPA government to provide 25 kgs of food grain at Rs 3 per kg in its election manifesto.

It is a matter of debate now as to how will the government resolve the impasse between the recommendations of the Rangarajan committee and the express desire of the NAC on the Food Bill. Over 20 months have passed since the government took over on this promise but inability to come to a consensus has eluded millions of hungry who were looking for government intervention to end their woes. Will the NAC over-rule the panel? This is the question dominating the discussion amongst the stakeholders.

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