A Parliamentary panel today suggested scrapping separate rates and quantity of foodgrains sold to poor and general public and said the UPA's ambitious Food Bill should guarantee 5 kg of wheat and rice to all beneficiaries at a uniform price of Rs 2 and Rs 3 per kg, respectively.
At present, below poverty line (BPL) families effectively get 7 kgs of wheat and rice at Rs 4.15 and Rs 5.65 per kg per month, respectively.
In the Food Security Bill, the government had proposed to change this by giving 7 kg of wheat and rice to a person at Rs 2 and Rs 3 per kg. Non-BPL families, as per the Bill, were to get 3 kg of foodgrain at half of the government fixed minimum support price which translates into about Rs 7 per kg for wheat and Rs 10 kg for rice.
Parliamentary Standing Committee, headed by Congress leader Vilas Muttemwar, in its report submitted to Lok Sabha Speaker Meira Kumar, suggested drastic changes in the Bill by seeking that all entitled beneficiaries be provided 5 kg of wheat and rice per month at a uniform rate of Rs 2 and Rs 3.
The recommendations of the House Panel are generally not binding on the government. The government may however decide to accept the changes proposed as these suggestions match its own re-thinking on implementation of the ambitious scheme.
If accepted, the recommendations will benefit the general population in both price and quantity, while BPL member will get lesser quota than what was proposed in the original Bill.
The Food Security Bill aims to benefit 67 per cent of the nation's population.
Speaking to media after presenting the report, Muttemwar said the panel had suggested coverage of 75 per cent of rural population and 50 per cent of urban as proposed in the Bill.
The bill, a pet project of UPA Chairperson Sonia Gandhi, was introduced in December 2011 and was referred to the Standing Committee for examination in January 2012.
The report of the panel, which comprises 31 members cutting across party lines, had only one dissenting note from CPM member T N Seema.
On other recommendation, Muttemwar said: "We have asked the government to give additional 5 kg of foodgrains per month to women during pregnancy and till two years after child birth". The panel has asked the government to modernise PDS and computerise supply chain.
"We have suggested that there should be single category of beneficiary with uniform entitlement of 5 kg per person per month at uniform subsidised price," Muttemwar said.
"There should be no general and priority households categories, only inclusion and exclusion. This suggestion has been made to make food bill sustainable," he added.
The panel was of the view that "such categorisation is very complicated and impractical" and it would have been difficult to implement, he said.
Asked about lowering the quantity from 7 kg to 5 kg, he said: "The Committee found that entitlement of 7 kg or 11 kg would not be feasible considering the current production and procurement trends."
The requirement of foodgrains and other welfare scheme would be 56.8 million tonnes and subsidy would be Rs 1.12 lakh crore, he said, adding that the coverage should be reviewed after 10 years and rates after 5 years.
On cash transfer of food subsidy, Muttemwar said the committee felt that cash transfer in lieu of foodgrains entitlements at this juncture may not be desirable.
It has recommended that banking infrastructure and accessibility to banking facility should be made available throughout India before introducing cash transfer.
Considering the demand from States for universal coverage, the Committee recommended that they should be given the flexibility to extend the coverage beyond this bill to cover more population out of their own resources.
"simple and fair way of setting state-wise exclusion ratio should be prescribed in a transparent manner so as to retain the existing coverage of population".
Stating that allocation to some states may fall from current level, the panel has suggested that the Centre should protect states' quota through executive orders.
On the issue of sharing of expenditure between the Centre and the states, the committee has recommended that the states can be divided into three categories -- A, B and C -- based on their financial performance.
The Centre may provide financial assistance to the extent of 50 per cent to Category B and 75 per cent to Category C for one time capital expenditure to be incurred on creation of infrastructure, constitution of state food commission, upkeep and creation of storage space, etc, it added.
The Food Ministry should consult the Finance Commission in relation to the additional expenditure required to be borne by the state governments so that they can allocate sufficient funds in their respective budgets for the implementation of the National Food Security Bill, 2011.
The panel also suggested that Ministry of Railways should initiate urgent steps to improve basic infrastructural facilities at those railheads, which lack facilities such as proper lighting, covered sheds, approach roads and proper platforms.
The committee was also of the view that people living in villages have no access to higher authorities at the district level and therefore recommended that the Bill should have provisions for grievance redressal at block/village panchayat level.