Sakshi of PRS Legislative Research discusses the government's ordinance-making power in the context of the National Food Security Ordinance in an Indian Express opinion editorial. On Wednesday, the Union cabinet approved the food security ordinance. The government has already introduced a National Food Security Bill in Parliament in December 2011. Parliamentary consideration on the bill has been initiated with the standing committee submitting its recommendations and the government proposing amendments to the law. After being listed on several occasions for discussion, members of Parliament began debating the bill in the last few days of the 2013 budget session. In spite of all this, the government has chosen to promulgate an ordinance. In all likelihood, Parliament will reconvene in a few weeks for the monsoon session. In this context, it would be useful to understand the ordinance-making power of government and its usage in the recent past. Under the Constitution, the power to make laws rests with the legislature. The executive has been given the power to make laws when Parliament is not in session and "immediate action" is necessary. In such scenarios, the president can issue an ordinance on the advice of the executive, to have the same effect as an act of Parliament. In the 1980s, the Supreme Court was confronted with a case where a state government repeatedly re-promulgated ordinances that had lapsed in previous assembly sessions. This led the SC to examine the ordinance-making power of government. The SC reasserted the constitutional principle that the primary law-making power rests with the legislature and not the executive. The executive is only given the legislative power to issue an ordinance to meet an "emergent situation". Such a situation arose in 2011 when, given that students were awaiting their degrees on the completion of their course, the government issued an ordinance to grant IIIT-Kancheepuram the status of an institute of national importance so that students could be awarded their degrees. Data over the last 60 years indicates that the highest number of ordinances, 34, were passed in 1993. Over the 15th Lok Sabha (2009-2013), there have been 16 ordinances, indicating a decline in the number of ordinances being issued every year. Once an ordinance is framed, it is to be laid before Parliament within six weeks of its first sitting. Parliament is empowered to either choose to pass the ordinance as law or let it lapse. Once the ordinance is laid in Parliament, the government introduces a bill addressing the same issue. This is typically accompanied by a memorandum tabled by the government, explaining the emergent circumstances that required the issue of an ordinance. Thereafter, the bill follows the regular law-making process. If Parliament does not approve the ordinance, it ceases to exist. The drafters of the Constitution created this check on the law-making power of the executive to reinforce the notion that law-making will remain the prerogative of the legislature. Earlier this year, in the aftermath of the Delhi gangrape, public pressure led the government to appoint a three-member committee under the late Justice J.S. Verma to suggest changes to laws relating to crimes against women. An amendment bill had already been pending in Parliament. In spite of this, the government brought in the Criminal Law Ordinance, giving effect to some of the committee's recommendations. Once Parliament reconvened, the government introduced a fresh bill replacing the ordinance, seeking to create more stringent provisions on matters related to sexual offences. It passed muster in both Houses. While the Criminal Law Ordinance is an illustration of an ordinance successfully passing through Parliament, there are examples of ordinances that have lapsed because they were not approved by Parliament. In 2004, a week after the winter session ended, the government issued an ordinance to give the Pension Fund Regulatory and Development Authority statutory powers as a regulator. Due to political opposition, the ordinance lapsed and, subsequently, the bill lapsed at the end of the 14th Lok Sabha. The government re-introduced it as a bill in 2011, which is currently pending in Parliament. Although the government has used its power to issue a food security ordinance, the law guaranteeing this right will have to stand scrutiny in Parliament. What remains to be seen is how Parliament debates the right to food in the upcoming monsoon session. That should give us some food for thought. For an analysis of the National Food Security Bill, refer to Sakshi's blog post here.
The right to food and food security have been widely discussed in the media. The National Food Security Bill, 2011, which makes the right to food a legal right, is currently pending in Parliament. The Bill seeks to deliver food security by providing specific entitlements to certain groups of individuals through the Targeted Public Distribution System, a large-scale subsidised foodgrain distribution system. The Standing Committee on Food, Consumer Affairs and Public Distribution presented its report on the Food Security Bill on January 17, 2013. It made recommendations on key issues such as the categorisation of beneficiaries, cash transfers and cost sharing between the centre and states. A comparison of the Bill and Committee’s recommendations are given below.
Food Security Bill
Standing Committee’s Recommendations
|Who will get food security?||75% of the rural and 50% of the urban population (to be divided into priority and general categories). Of these, at least 46% of the rural and 28% of urban populations will be priority (the rest will be general).||Uniform category: Priority, general and other categories shall be collapsed into ‘included’ and ‘excluded’ categories.Included category shall extend to 75% of the rural and 50% of the urban population.|
|How will they be identified?||The centre shall prescribe guidelines for identifying households; states shall identify the specific households.||The centre should clearly define criteria for exclusion and consult with states to create inclusion criteria.|
|What will they get?||Priority:7 kg foodgrains/person/month (at Rs 3/kg for wheat, Rs 2/kg for rice, Rs 1/kg for coarse grains).General: 3 kg foodgrains/person/ month (at 50% of MSP).||Included: 5 kg foodgrains/person/month (at subsidised prices). Pulses, sugar, etc., should be provided in addition to foodgrains.|
|Reforms to TPDS||Doorstep delivery of foodgrains to ration shops, use of information technology, etc.||Implement specific IT reforms, for e.g. CCTV cameras in godowns, use of internet, and GPS tracking of vehicles carrying foodgrains. Evaluate implementation of TPDS every 5 yrs.|
|Cost-sharing between centre and states||Costs will be shared between centre and states. Mechanism for cost-sharing will be determined by the centre.||Finance Commission and states should be consulted regarding additional expenditure to be borne by states to implement the Bill.|
|Cash Transfers||Schemes such as cash transfer and food coupons shall be introduced in lieu of foodgrains.||Cash transfers should not be introduced at this time. Adequate banking infrastructure needs to be set up before introduction.|
|Time limit for implementation||The Act shall come into force on a date specified by the centre.||States to be provided reasonable time limit i.e., 1 year, after which Act will come into force.|
A recent news report has discussed the methods by which states such as Chattisgarh have attempted to reform the Public Distribution System (PDS). Chattisgarh has computerised its PDS supply chain and introduced smart cards as part of a slew of measures to plug pilferage and weed out corruption in the system. In an effort to create a national computerised database for PDS, the Ministry of Consumer Affairs has launched an online National Transparency Portal for the Public Distribution System. The portal aims to provide end-to-end computerisation of PDS; it is a single platform in the public domain for all PDS related information. The PDS is a centrally sponsored scheme that entitles beneficiaries to subsidised foodgrains every month. Currently, beneficiaries are divided into the following groups: Below Poverty Line (BPL), Above Poverty Line and Antodaya Anna Yojana. As such, several challenges have been identified in the implementation of PDS. Some of them are as follows:
- Targeting errors: Separating beneficiaries of the PDS into three categories requires their classification and identification. Targeting mechanisms, however, have been prone to large inclusion and exclusion errors. In 2009, an expert group estimated that about 61% of the eligible population was excluded from the BPL list while 25% of non-poor households were included in the BPL list.
- Large leakages and diversion of subsidized foodgrain: Foodgrain is procured by the centre and transported from the central to state godowns. Last mile delivery from state godowns to the Fair Price Shop (FPS) where beneficiaries can purchase grain with ration cards, is the responsibility of the state government. Large quantities of foodgrain are leaked and diverted into the open market during this supply chain.
The creation of the e-portal could help track these issues more effectively and increase transparency in the system. The portal contains information relating to FPS and ration cards attached to the FPS. It is likely that this will help weed out bogus ration cards and improve targeting of subsidies. The portal also has information on capacity utilization of Food Corporation of India, state storage godowns, and data on central pool stocks. This helps track storage supplies of grains at each level and aims to prevent leakage of grain. With respect to data on PDS in states, the portal hosts information such as the central orders on monthly allocation of foodgrain to states, state-specific commodity sale prices, lifting position of states, etc. for public view. All states and union territories will be required to maintain and update the data on the portal. The reforms come at a time when the National Food Security Bill, 2011 is pending in Parliament. The Bill aims to deliver foodgrain entitlements through Targeted PDS to 75% of the rural and 50% of the urban population. The Bill is currently under examination by the Standing Committee of Food, Consumer Affairs and Public Distribution. It proposes reforms to the TPDS, which include the application of information and communication technology, including end-to-end computerisation. These reforms seek to ensure full transparency of records in the PDS and prevent diversion of foodgrains. The creation of the e-portal might be a step towards reforming the PDS. For an analysis of the National Food Security Bill, see here.