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Government promises ‘reasonably priced’ food for all

By Prashant Sood, IANS,

New Delhi : The proposed national food security bill will ensure that every Indian has access to foodgrains at a reasonable price, says minister K.V. Thomas — a claim rejected by activists who say the draft legislation is inadequate and lacks accountability.

“When (the bill is) implemented, every citizen will have food material at a reasonable price,” Thomas, minister of state (independent charge) for consumer affairs, food and public distribution, told IANS in an interview.

Thomas said the draft bill, cleared by a group of ministers last month, has been vetted by the law ministry. It has gone to Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee, and it will now go to the states for consultation.

Thomas said his ministry is consulting states as the “important legislation” can’t be implemented without their support.

“We are trying to speed it up. The consultation with states may take 15-20 days. We are trying our best that it is introduced in parliament before the end of the (monsoon) session.”

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh may meet chief ministers on the issue.

The minister said the government had to take into account factors such as availability and procurement of foodgrains.

“When you are in government, you have to be practical,” he said.

He said the average procurement of foodgrains was 55 million tonnes for some years. This could be stretched to 60 million tonnes. Any further push could lead to a rise in prices in the open market.

The bill provides foodgrain entitlement of 7 kg per person per month for priority households and 3 kg per person per month to general households.

Critics say the bill is inadequate.

Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) leader Brinda Karat told IANS: “The bill is based on reduction in entitlements rather than expansion, particularly since 10 states have already established a much more expanded network both in terms of number (of people covered) and price.”

She said when people were getting rice at Rs.2 per kg in some states, why should the central government offer it at Rs.3 a kg to below poverty line (BPL) families.

“The states have identified 56 percent as poor, why should the government reduce it to 46 percent in rural areas and 28 percent in urban areas?” she asked, referring to provisions of the bill.

Aruna Roy, a member of the National Advisory Council, said the government draft was still not public but dilution of key provisions of the bill finalized by the NAC was not acceptable.

Suggesting universalisation of public distribution system entitlements, she said there was a misconception that people will clamour for subsidised ration.

“Look at NREGA (National Rural Employment Guarantee Act). People do not run after it… Only the needy will take benefits if the coverage is universal,” Roy told IANS.

Roy said reduction in coverage of the rural population from 90 percent in the bill finalised by the NAC to 75 percent, dilution of the grievance redressal mechanism and provisions for cash transfer were not acceptable.

Critics also say the bill seeks to legalise the present “objectionable linkages” between the Planning Commission’s poverty estimates with the state caps on those who may be officially recognised as poor.

The Right to Food campaign has urged the prime minister to set aside the draft bill, saying it minimises the government’s obligations, restricts people’s entitlements and is devoid of any accountability.

Thomas, however, said the government was putting its best foot forward.

“Everybody has the right to opinion. Procurement has to improve. Storage, PDS have to improve. Above all there are financial constraints… We have to work on all fronts,” Thomas told IANS.