A new version of the National Food Security Bill - which guarantees highly-subsidised grain to 75% of India - has been assigned to the government by Rahul and Sonia Gandhi. The draft - in the form of a Cabinet note - is likely to be introduced in the Winter Session of Parliament.
The new version of the bill promises much more than earlier versions, which had been rejected by the government as financially unviable. The latest version incorporates most features considered essential by the activists who are included in the National Advisory Council (NAC), headed by Sonia Gandhi, and entrusted with developing the fundamentals of new legislation to fight malnutrition and hunger.
With five major states including Uttar Pradesh headed for elections soon, the Food Security Bill has the potential to fashion the sort of popularity for UPA 2 that was accomplished for the government's last term in power through the Right to Work. The MNREGA or Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act played a key role in the fortunes of UPA1.
What the Gandhis have insisted on will raise the price tag significantly. "They have been responsible for these changes and this will ensure one full cycle of looking after every citizen - and it will cost an extra 12000 crores," acknowledged KV Thomas, the Food Minister.
So now, all pregnant and lactating women will be given Rs 6000 for a period of six months. Government employees and those who work for Public Sector Units (PSUs) are excluded because they already benefit from existing schemes.
Seven kilos of subsidised food grains per person like rice and wheat will be guaranteed every month for "priority households" - which are seen as the most needy, though the parametres for how that will be decided have not been finalised. The new bill also promises a minimum of three kilos of food grains for the "general category" which consists of Lower Middle Class families. The prices are in what's known as the 3-2-1 model - each family will pay Rs 3 per kg of rice, Rs 2 per kilo of wheat, and Rs 1 per kilo of coarse grain.
A reformed Public Distribution which includes door-step delivery, food coupons, aadhar or universal identity cards, and cash transfers (instead of food grains) aims to limit or eliminate the role of middlemen and ration shops where huge amounts of subsidised grain go missing.
The Congress wants the Union government to pay 90 percent of the 1.20 lakh crore rupees that the new scheme will cost. Finance minister Pranab Mukherjee has to now work on where and how to find the money for this.