Will Sonia Gandhi's food bill pass muster?



New Delhi: The draft National Food Security Bill, that seeks to provide rice at Rs 3, wheat at Rs 2 and coarse grains at Re 1 per kg to over half of India's 1.2 billion population, has hit a roadblock over issues of high cost and availability of grains.

The bill seeks to cover 75 percent of the rural population and 50 percent of urban households. The Union Cabinet deferred a decision on the draft bill on December 13 and is likely to take it up on Sunday.

"We are trying our best to introduce the bill this session," Food Minister KV Thomas said.

The bill is the pet project of the Sonia Gandhi-led National Advisory Council and was part of the Congress manifesto for the 2009 general election.

Informed sources said Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar has expressed concern that food subsidy, currently at Rs 63,000 crore (USD 12 billion), may go up to Rs 1.2 lakh crore (USD 23 billion) if the bill is implemented. Add to that the rising fertiliser prices and the minimum support price (MSP) of the grains, the government is staring at a colossal cost, they added.

Pawar has cautioned that the government must make provision for two successive years of drought, which can impact availability of grains.

It is estimated that against the current procurement levels of 54 millions tonnes, the requirement may go up to 62 million tonnes. Government foodgrain stocks in August 2011 were 61.27 million tonnes.

The general category will be provided at least three kilograms of foodgrains per person per month at half the MSP.

The Agriculture Minister has also asked the government to take on board the states, which will implement the law. States have said legal rights allowing women, children, destitute and homeless people to take home the ration would bring additional financial burden on them.

Food Ministry sources said the bill provides for cost-sharing to pacify them. The states also have objections over authority to decide on the criteria to identify the beneficiaries.

A three-tier grievance redressal mechanism at district, state and national level is also part of the legislation.

IANS