The government effort to draft a seminal law to fight hunger is flawed, inadequate and "not in the spirit of election promises" in the Congress manifesto, says a confidential note circulated to top ministers at a meeting on Monday.
The three-page note — a copy is with HT — came from the office of finance minister Pranab Mukherjee and was handed to the Empowered Group of Ministers (EGoM) after it was pushed by UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi to reconsider a draft Food Security Bill.
The criticism in this note was at the centre of discussions in the meeting. Its contents clearly set the agenda for the government: more subsidies, greater recognition of "most vulnerable sections", wide-ranging reforms of anti-poverty programmes and greater transparency in their administration.
"The National Food Security Act must ensure food for all, addressing the concerns of availability, access and absorption," said the note.
"The present draft addresses none of these sufficiently."
Seven of the eight EGoM ministers, except Mamata Banerjee, and "special observer", Planning Commission deputy chairman Montek Singh Ahluwalia, attended the meeting.
With government spending on key food security-related programmes set to exceed Rs. 118,000 crore for 2010-11, the highest ever, the note points to the piecemeal approach of the version first cleared by the EGoM on March 18.
"The draft bill does not cover any of the other food security schemes that were meant to be brought under a single umbrella, including mid-day meals, integrated child development services, pensions, maternity benefits," said the note, adding that "vulnerable groups" like urban homeless and migrants "have not been covered".
The Planning Commission has three weeks to prepare a note that widens the scope of the bill. This is a hard task, to redraw India’s official poverty line — which considers an ability to spend Rs. 12 per day per person for rural areas and Rs. 17 per month per person in urban areas — and take it beyond the current 280 million.
The note spends the most space on reform of the Public Distribution System (PDS), the nationwide network to provide subsidised food through 0.5 million ‘fair-price’ shops.
It says reforms must focus on: locally bought grain, ensure PDS documents be made public and provided on demand within seven days, at costs prescribed by the Right to Information Act (RTI); shop management by village councils and women’s groups; include grains like jowar, bajra.
The note makes a special note of "weak accountability and grievance redressal" in the draft bill.
"The same machinery responsible for implementation of the Act is charged with oversight/accountability," it says.
"It is this conflict of interest that has led to the failure of the existing mechanism. Lessons from the implementation of the RTI and NREGS are being ignored in framing this Act."
The ministers at the meeting were Mukherjee, P Chidambaram (home), Anand Sharma (commerce), Sharad Pawar (agriculture), A K Anthony (defence) and C P Joshi (rural development).