In the face of public outrage over a series of unpopular fiscal steps such as hike in diesel prices and cap on LPG, the government plans to come out with two feel-good initiatives — the food security bill and health cover for all.
The UPA’s flagship National Food Security Bill would give 67% of the population (nearly 800 million people) a legal right to foodgrains at less than half the market price. The percentage of beneficiaries has been increased from an initial proposal of 63.5%.
The government is likely to push the bill in Parliament in the winter session, an official said. It is currently being examined by a parliamentary standing committee.
The other scheme, Universal Health Coverage (UHC), offers free and cashless treatment for everyone at all government district hospitals and primary health centres and sub-centres and will go before cabinet on October 5."The framework is ready, it can be implemented in a phased manner," said a health ministry official.
The food bill is likely to cost the Centre Rs. 1.19 lakh crore to implement while the cost of the health plan will primarily be borne by taxpayers.
The food bill stems from a Congress pledge during the 2004 general elections and its drafting has been closely overseen by party chief Sonia Gandhi.
“We want to fulfil our promise as soon as possible,” food minister KV Thomas told HT.
The government expects the Opposition to back the bill in the House as it is a populist measure.
India is home to the world’s largest number of food-insecure people (200 million), according to a Food and Agriculture Organisation report.
To play for UHC, additional mandatory deductions for healthcare would be made from salaried individuals and taxpayers, either as a proportion of taxable income or as a proportion of salary.
“The health budget needs to be enhanced for this scheme to work. Public-financing is key; we must gather taxes from those able to pay. Social insurance isn’t possible in our country as more than 90% of the workforce belongs to the unorganized sector,” said Dr K Srinath Reddy, chair, expert group on UHC.
Public health expenditure will also be increased from the current 1.2% of GDP to at least 2.5% by the end of the 12th plan, and 3% by 2022.
People will still have to pay for treatment at super-specialty hospitals.
“But if we have a robust healthcare system at the primary level, the burden on big hospitals will automatically come down,” said Reddy.
Free treatment for poor people at super-specialty hospitals will be decided by an expert committee on a case-to-case basis.