New Delhi: The Supreme Court on Monday asked the government to proceed cautiously in the gradual phase-out of the existing model of private fair price shops so that no gap is created in supply of food grains under public distribution system.
The apex court favoured the idea of doing away with private fair price shops to make food grain distribution in sync with the recommendations of the National Food Security Bill (NFSB) till it becomes a law.
"We are hearing about the gradual phasing out of private fair price shop. However, there should not be crisis in supply of food grains. The substitute should not be worse than the existing one," a bench comprising justices T S Thakur and Fakkir M Kalifulla said.
The remarks were made by the bench during the perusal of an affidavit placed by Attorney General G E Vahanvati in which there were 10 suggestions by the Centre based on the recommendations of the Justice D P Wadhwa Committee which had given detailed report on the ills and remedial measures to be adopted for the public distribution system (PDS).
Senior advocate Colin Gonsalves, appearing for NGO People's Union of Civil Liberty (PUCL), submitted that the affidavit has not addressed the issue of Wadhwa Committee report which has called for keeping away politicians as members in the vigilance committee for the implementation of PDS.
Vahanvati agreed with him and said, "We have missed it and we will look into it."
The bench asked Gonsalves to go through the government's affidavit and come out with other suggestions which were required to be followed by the state governments and union territories in the implementation of the PDS.
While it was told that effective system was in place for the implementation of PDS and the transition would gradually move in a smooth manner, the bench said it is not clear what span of time will be taken for replacing the present system with an alternate one.
"It is very easy to say. You go to tribal areas in Chhattisgarh, Bihar or Jharkhand, people don't even have basic amenities. This country is very big. What you have in mind will not hold good for entire country," the bench said.
It cautioned the government on the issue by saying that phasing out of private fair price shop should be undertaken in a careful manner as "so many people are involved in it".
"What does gradual phasing out mean," the bench asked and the Attorney General said "some aspect of grey is there".
Before posting the hearing for April 2, the bench permitted the winding up of the Wadhwa Committee by March 31 asking the department concerned to expeditiously release the funds pending to it.
During the last hearing, the bench had said there was a need to keep in mind the committee's "broad recommendations" and the "road map" shown by the NFSB to administratively put a mechanism through an executive order in the interregnum.
The bench was of the view that no one system of PDS can be 'perfect' and it should be left to the states to ideally run it by state-level corporations, panchayati raj institutions, cooperatives and registered women's self-help groups as recommended in the Wadhwa report.
The bench, which accepted the findings of the Wadhwa Committee on the ills prevalent in the present PDS, clearly stated, "There was a need to switch over from private shops where there have been "large-scale pilferage" as "the food grains are not reaching the real beneficiaries".
Vahanvati had said the Parliamentary Committee has given a report on the bill and the government has to take a decision and hoped that NFSB will see the light of the day in the budget session of Parliament.
The Wadhwa Committee, appointed by the apex court, had said in its report that the state governments have been reluctant to deploy modern technology of computerisation to check diversion of PDS grains even as there is a "nexus among the fair price shop owners, bureaucrats and politicians".
It had recommended that the above-poverty-line families should not be given subsidised food grains and the government agencies should undertake their distribution directly instead of doing so through the fair price shops run by private persons to check corruption in PDS.