Despite delays and apparent difference of opinion at high levels, the food minister KV Thomas today re-iterated that the Government will push through a ‘Food Security’ bill, possibly in the coming session of the Parliament itself. He also hinted that the Government version of the bill may different from that suggested by the National Advisory Council.
Many experts see the Food Security Bill, as framed by the Sonia Gandhi headed ‘think tank’ National Advisory Council, as a potential disaster in the making, going by India’s inability so far to properly target in-kind food subsidies to the right sections of the society.
India, which runs one of the World’s largest food rationing system in the shape of the Public Distribution System or PDS, has not been able to prevent an annual food-subsidy budget of Rs 60,000 crore ($13.3 billion) from being appropriated by corrupt government officials and wholesale grain traders.
At least half of the 45 million tonnes of food grains that is moved through the gigantic network of distribution shops is estimated to be diverted to commercial companies by corrupt officials. Most of the remaining is also substituted by at the end-point by the ration distributor by rotten grains procured from the local grain merchants.
The original, fresh grain reaches the go-downs of the local merchants, while most of the poorest of the poor, who rely on such ‘ration shops,’ end up with maggot infested grains. As most of the consumers are poor, illiterate and hapless, the system rarely gets challenged.
In this light, many experts, including those in the NAC itself, have called on the government to first plug the leaks in the pipeline before increasing the supply of grain. It is estimated that the supply of grain will have to be increased by around 33% if the Bill, as suggested by the NAC, is passed without change.
Already, the Government procures around 30% of India’s total production of food grain. Under the NAC bill, supply provision will have to be made for around 75% of the Indian population, compared to around 25% to 50% who are eligible and around 20% or so who actually get any grain from the PDS at present.
Thomas seemed to indicate that many of the criticisms have been been taken heed of, in the Government’s version of the bill.
“National Food Security Act which will entitle every family below the poverty line to certain quantities of foodgrains at subsidized prices. The legislation will also be used to bring about broader systemic reforms in the Public Distribution System,” his ministry said in a statement.