Lok Sabha approves food security bill

The Lok Sabha on Monday approved a scheme to provide cheap grain to the poor, offering the scam-tainted UPA government a new hope of turning votes in its favour in the general election due next year.

The food security bill, the pet programme of Congress president Sonia Gandhi, is key to her party's winning a  third term in elections due May 2014.

India's most ambitious and historic initiative, the food security bill, which seeks to ensure food and nutritional security to its people at affordable prices, won approval of the Lok Sabha on Monday after days of unruly scenes in Parliament.

Under the plan, estimated to cost the government Rs1,25,000 crore ($20 billion) annually, the government will provide wheat and rice at nominal prices to 67 per cent of its population of 1.2 billion.

The food security bill, which the government promulgated as a Presidential ordinance last month, now needs approval from the upper house of Parliament, the Rajya Sabha, before it becomes an Act.

The bill, which is almost on the lines of the rural employment scheme MNREGA brought in by the previous UPA government in 2005, is a boon to the Congress party.

Under the food security programme that would bring two-thirds of the country's 1.2 billion population under Targeted Public Distribution System (TPDS), up to 75 per cent of the rural population and up to 50 per cent of the urban population will have uniform entitlement of 5 kg foodgrains per month at highly subsidised prices of Rs3, Rs2, Re1 per kg, for rice, wheat and coarse grains, respectively.

The poorest of poor households would continue to receive 35 kg foodgrains per household per month under Antyodaya Anna Yajna at subsidised prices of Rs3, Rs2 and Re1.

Existing allocation of foodgrains to the states and union territories under the PDS will continue but will be restricted to average annual offtake during the last three years.

The central government will decide the coverage corresponding to the 75 per cent rural and 50 per cent urban population at the all-India level while the work of identification of eligible households will be left to the states and union territories, which may frame their own criteria or use socio-economic and caste census data as the case may be.

The central government does not, however, assure uninterrupted supply of foodgrains or meals to entitles persons from the central pool.

''In case of non-supply of foodgrains or meals to entitled persons, the concerned state and union territories governments will be required to provide such food security allowance as may be prescribed by the central government to the beneficiaries.''

States will get central assistance for intra-state transportation and handling of foodgrains the centre will also provide assistance to states towards cost of intra-state transportation, handling of foodgrains and FPS dealers' margin, for which norms will be developed.

Nutritional support: Under the focus on nutritional support, pregnant women and lactating mothers, besides being entitled to nutritious meals as per the prescribed nutritional norms will also receive maternity benefit of at least of Rs6,000. Children in the age group of 6 months to 14 years will be entitled to take home ration or cooked food as per prescribed nutritional norms.

The bill also contains provisions for reforms in PDS through doorstep delivery of foodgrains, application of information and communication technology (ICT), including end-to-end computerisation, leveraging 'Aadhaar' for unique identification of beneficiaries, diversification of commodities under TPDS etc for effective implementation of the Food Security Act.

The original food security bill envisaged Rs1,25,000 crore government support for the programme, obviously the largest in the world.

But the opposition parties, especially the Samajwadi Party headed by Mulayam Singh Yadav, has accused the Congress of indulging in vote bank politics and wanted the bill to obtain concurrence of state governments.

India, one of the biggest food producers in the world, is also home to a quarter of the world's hungry poor, according to United Nations data.

The passage of the bill broke a long stalemate in Parliament, potentially clearing the way for several reforms aimed at propping up the flagging economy.

Faced with an unruly parliament, the coalition government extended the current session of Parliament to 6 September in order to ensure the passage of the bill.

The Bhartiya Janata Party, the main opposition party, however, says the welfare scheme, which expands an existing cheap food programme covering 218 million people, is still too narrow to tackle widespread malnutrition among India's millions of poor.

The house passed the bill only after the inclusion of amendments that could lead to an additional requirement of about 3 million tonnes of grain.