Thursday, February 21, 2013

Comrade T. N. Seema's dissent note on the Food Security Bill

The National Food Security Bill, 2011 was introduced in the Lok Sabha on December 22, 2011. The Standing Committee on Food, Consumer Affairs and Public Distribution presented its report on January 17, 2013. It made recommendations on key issues such as the categorisation of beneficiaries, cash transfers and cost sharing between the centre and states. A dissent note was presented by one MP from the CPI (M), Dr. T.N. Seema. We are happy to publish the dissent note below:
I wish to record my disagreement and dissent on some recommendations of the Committee as well as on some recommendations not made by the Committee which 1 feel should have been made. I have expressed these views in the course of the discussions in the Committee also. However, the final report in my opinion is not satisfactory on these issues fundamental to the question of food security; hence this note of dissent.

1. The entitlements in the Bill should be universal in nature with no caps artificially decided. However the Committee has recommended only a uniform entitlement not a universal one. Thus the numbers of those to be covered by even a uniform entitlement will be subject to the arbitrary caps put by the Planning Commission of 75 per cent (rural) and 50 per cent (urban). In fact the committee specifically recommends these caps in paraa 2.5. This undermines food security in a fundamental way. The recommendation of the Committee is only that the State Governments if they want can increase the coverage at their own cost. This is both meaningless and unfair. At present, the Bill specifically states that all foodgrains provided by the centre to the States have to be distributed as mandated. This means that the States which are using the foodgrains at present to ensure near universal coverage will no longer be able to do so. They will now have to buy the extra foodgrains required at the market price. This will mean the elimination of the effective food programmes being run by several State Governments. The committee has failed to take these factors into account.

2. The uniform entitlement recommended by the Committee at 5 kgs per head is quite unacceptable as it would reduce even the present entitlement for BPL and AAY families of 35 kgs effectively by 10 kgs for a family of five. This cut in entitlement will be creating food insecurity for 6.52 crore families (presently identified as BPL/Antodaya). This will only help the Government to contain its subsidy but not provide food security which is the aim of the Bill. It would have been better to have kept the entitlement to 7 kgs per individual for all with a minimum of 35 kgs ensured by law. Larger families would in any case be covered through the individual entitlement.

3. The Committee has correctly recommended a uniform price for all. However, it has adopted the prices of three rupees, two rupees and one rupee, for one kg of rice, wheat and millets respectively. While this is beneficial for those who would have been categorized as "general sections" in the Government Bill, it is not doing justice to the Antodaya sections who are getting their allotments at two rupees per kg, which has also been adopted as the price norm for non-Antodaya sections in many States. Thus, the committee's recommendation should have taken into account the present situation in the States and suggested a uniform price of 35 kgs (minimum) at two rupees a kilo.

4. The Bill has been rightly criticized by many of the representations being highly centralized. This is more so as far as the cost sharing issue is concerned. In a central Bill the centre must bear the major share of the cost. Many State Governments said that the entire cost should be born by the centre. However, the committee has recommended categorization of States. This is opening up a pandora's box and will lead to giving the centre even more powers to pick and choose the categories. States with a particular problem of transportation, such as the north-east States should get the benefit of the centre paying for the full amount. In any case, no cost sharing can be decided by central Government arbitrarily as is being done with many schemes and laws. The relevant clauses in the Bill which deal with this topic must be deleted; otherwise, it is extremely unfair to the States and moreover undermines the federal character of the constitution.

5. On the issue of direct cash transfers the recommendation of the committee is that "at this juncture" it should not be introduced as the infrastructure is absent. While this note of caution should be taken seriously by the Government, the committee however has failed to recommend, as it should have, that reference to cash transfers in the Bill should be removed altogether. I believe it is essential to emphasise in the recommendation that cash transfers instead of food at a time of high food inflation is bound to lead to food insecurity. The increase in market prices of foodgrains will mean that the cash subsidy will not cover the entire cost of 35 kgs entitlement. Further, since there is no guarantee as to how the cash will be spent, it may lead to further malnutrition. Retaining the cash transfer clause in the law would mean that a Government would have the legal right to enforce it.

6. I think it is wrong for the committee to make a specific recommendation to limit the allowance of 1000 rupees to a pregnant woman for only the first two children. This is imposing a two child norm which is objectionable. The problems she faces will be the same, if not more with a third child. Why should we make the woman suffer, when she rarely has the power to take the decision about the numbers of children she should bear. As far as anganwadis are concerned, the committee has wrongly absolved the Government from providing free meals and added nutrition for pregnant mothers. There are other points such as fixing control prices for pulses, edible oil and other essential commodities which should be included in the Bill.