In the last decade, some schemes have been recast as statutory entitlements – right to employment, right to education and right to food. Whereas schemes were dependent on annual budgetary allocations, there rights are now justiciable, and it would be obligatory for Parliament to allocate sufficient resources in the budget. Some of these rights also entail expenditure by state governments, with the implication that state legislatures will have to provide sufficient funds in their budgets. Importantly, the amounts required are a significant proportion of the total budget. There has been little debate on the core constitutional issue of whether any Parliament can pre-empt the role of resource allocation by future Parliaments. Whereas a future Parliament can address this issue by amending the Act, such power is not available to state legislatures. Through these Acts, Parliament is effectively constraining the spending preferences of states as expressed through their budgets passed by their respective legislative assemblies. I have discussed these issues in my column in Pragati published on August 16, 2013.
The 15th Lok Sabha is close to the end of its tenure. A key legislation that proposes major reforms in food security was listed for discussion in Parliament. The National Food Security Bill, 2011 has been scrutinised by a Standing Committee. In January, we compared the Standing Committee's recommendations with the provisions of the Bill. Since then, amendments to the Bill have been introduced in Parliament. Debates on the Bill have revolved around the method of delivering food security, the identification of beneficiaries and the financial implications of the Bill. Method of delivery The Bill aims to make the right to food a statutory right. It proposes to use the existing Public Distribution System (PDS) to deliver foodgrain to 75% of the rural and 50% of the urban population. However, the Bill also allows for cash transfers and food coupons in lieu of grains as mechanisms to deliver food security. While the PDS is known to suffer from leakages as high as 40%, cash transfers and food coupons are known to expose recipients to volatility and price inflation. Each method of delivery would have its own implications, financial and otherwise. The table below compares these methods of delivery.[i] [table id=7 /]
According to news reports, the Prime Minister recently chaired a meeting with ministers to discuss an alternative plan (“Plan B”) for the National Food Security Bill, 2011 (hereinafter “Bill”). The Bill is currently pending with the Standing Committee of Food, Consumer Affairs and Public Distribution. It seeks to deliver food and nutritional security by providing specific entitlements to certain groups. The alternative proposal aims to give greater flexibility to states and may bind the centre to a higher food subsidy burden than estimates provided in the Bill. It suggests changes to the classification of beneficiaries and the percentage of the national population to be covered by the Bill, among others. Classification of beneficiaries The Bill classifies the population into three groups: priority, general and excluded. Individuals in the priority and general groups would receive 7 kg and 3 kg of foodgrain per person per month respectively at subsidized prices. Plan B suggests doing away with the priority-general distinction. It classifies the population on the basis of 2 categories: included and excluded. Those entitled to benefits under the included category will receive a uniform entitlement of 5 kg per person per month. Coverage of population Experts have suggested that the Bill will extend entitlements to roughly 64% of the total population. Under the Bill, the central government is responsible for determining the percentage of people in each state who will be entitled to benefits under priority and general groups. Plan B suggests extending benefits to 67% of the total population (33% excluded), up from 64% in the Bill. The Ministry has outlined two options to figure out the number of people in each state that should be included within this 67%. The first option envisages a uniform exclusion of 33% in each state irrespective of their poverty level. The second option envisages exclusion of 33% of the national population, which would imply a different proportion excluded in each state depending on their level of prosperity. The Ministry has worked out a criterion to determine the proportion of the population to be included in each state. The criterion is pegged to a monthly per capita expenditure of Rs 1,215 in rural areas and Rs 1,502 in urban areas based on the 2009-10 NSSO survey. Thus, persons spending less than Rs 40 in rural areas and Rs 50 in urban areas per day will be entitled to foodgrains under the alternative being considered now. Financial estimates Newspaper reports have indicated that the revised proposal will add Rs 7,000 to Rs 10,000 crore per year to the current food subsidy estimate of Rs 1.1 lakh crore. According to some experts, the total cost of the Bill could range anywhere between Rs 2 lakh crore to Rs 3.5 lakh crore (see here and here).