House panel for right to 'quality' food

New Delhi, Jan. 17: A parliamentary panel today suggested the government's food security bill be tweaked to provide a uniform monthly entitlement of 5kg subsidised grain per head for 67 per cent of the population.

It also sought minimum quality norms and a right for beneficiaries to reject substandard grain.

The 29-member standing committee on food, consumer affairs and public distribution, headed by Congress member Vilas Muttemwar, handed in its report on the National Food Security Bill 2011 to Speaker Meira Kumar. (See chart)

It suggested a single category of beneficiaries rather than two, comprising 75 per cent of the rural and 50 per cent of the urban population.

"If any state government wants, it may extend the coverage beyond the prescribed limits out of its own resources," Muttemwar told reporters.

The House committee received nearly 1.5 lakh suggestions, including some from state governments. CPM Rajya Sabha member T.N. Seema, who is on the panel, submitted a note of dissent against the committee's rejection of the demand for universal food security coverage, as demanded by several states and activists.

"Welfare schemes are not meant for the rich.... So we rejected the demand for universal coverage," Muttemwar said.

He said that though the Integrated Child Development Scheme (ICDS) entitled all children to free food, well-off families had never shown any interest in claiming the benefit for their children.

Muttemwar added that universal coverage was not sustainable. The government procures around 6.5 crore tonnes of food grains per year. Providing 5kg grains monthly per head to 67 per cent of the population would take up 4.88 crore tonnes. The government will need another 1.5 crore tonnes for schemes such as the ICDS and the midday meal.

The panel agreed that the beneficiaries should be selected on the basis of the ongoing socio-economic caste census. Some government officials, however, were sceptical about a tweak the committee suggested ' that a set of criteria be worked out to exclude exactly a fourth of the rural population and half the urban population.

"How can you have a (pre-determined) formula to select exactly 75 per cent of the rural population and 50 per cent of the urban population," an official said.

The rural development ministry has already set up a committee under Planning Commission member Abhijit Sen to suggest the criteria to select beneficiaries for the various welfare schemes from the caste census data.

The House panel felt that the time was not yet ripe for delivering food subsidy through a cash transfer to beneficiaries' bank accounts. Its advice comes at a time the food ministry is poised to launch a pilot project on cash delivery of food subsidy in six Union territories.

The committee has suggested that the bill be passed within a year from now. The food ministry will consider the report and incorporate suggestions it finds suitable. After cabinet clearance, the revised bill will be reintroduced in Parliament.

About 36 per cent of the population now falls under the below-poverty-line (BPL) category. A BPL family of five gets 35kg food grains per month at a subsidised price.

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