Government think tank NITI Aayog has recommended lowering the coverage of both rural and urban population under the National Food Security Act, 2013, to save up to Rs 47,229 crore annually, The Indian Express reported on Sunday.

The recommendation, which is part of a discussion paper, suggests reducing the coverage to 60% from the current 75% of the rural population, and to 40% from the current 50% of the urban population, according to the report. Overall, the National Food Security Act currently covers 67% of the country’s total population.

Under the Act, each Antyodaya Anna Yojana household, which refer to the poorest sections of the country, are entitled to 35 kg of food grains per month. This policy covers approximately 2.37 crore households or 9.01 crore persons, as on February 1, 2021. Besides, nearly 70.35 crore persons from priority households, or those who hold a ration card, are entitled to 5 kg of food grains per person per month.

The erstwhile Planning Commission, which was replaced by the NITI Aayog, had determined the state-wise coverage ratio of the National Food Security Act based on the rural and urban coverage ratio of 75:50. This was done using the National Sample Survey Household Consumption Expenditure coverage under food security law Survey data for 2011-12, according to The Indian Express. The coverage ratio has not been revised since the law came into effect on July 5, 2013.

The NITI Aayog discussion paper estimates that if the rural-urban coverage ratio remains the same, i.e. 75:50, in current population levels, then number of people under the coverage of the Act will expand to 89.52 crore, from the existing 81.35 crore. On the other hand, if it is reduced to the recommended ratio of 60:40, the number of beneficiaries will come down to 71.62 crore.

Therefore, apart from reducing the coverage, the NITI Aayog has also recommended updating the population level which is currently based on Census 2011, according to the report by The Indian Express.

The discussion paper says:

“...Taking into consideration the past decade growth and development and the scope provided by the Act for reduction and the amount of savings Government can have on part of food subsidy which can further be utilised in other important areas of concern such as health and education, especially in the present pandemic time, it is recommended to reduce the National Rural-Urban Coverage Ratio under NFSA to 60-40 from 75-50 while updating the population level to the present level (based on population estimates).”

The discussion paper has reportedly noted two other scenarios also – revising the state/Union Territory-specific coverage ratios and identifying eligible beneficiaries.

Some way to go before implementation

The discussion paper was prepared after multiple meetings under the chairmanship of NITI Aayog member Ramesh Chand, and were attended by the chief economic advisor, food secretary, and secretary of statistics and programme implementation ministry, the report said.

Following the meetings, the department of food and public distribution also asked the NITI Aayog to suggest an alternative way to cover beneficiaries under the Act, who might be left out due to the changes in the coverage ratio, according to The Indian Express.

However, there was still a major hurdle left before implementing the changes – that of a legislation being passed in this regard. “There is no formal proposal as yet,” a food ministry official told The Indian Express. The department does not have powers to change the law. Only Parliament can amend the law.”

In the past, the Shanta Kumar Committee, which submitted its report in January 2015 on “Reorienting the role and restructuring of Food Corporation of India”, had recommended reducing the coverage ratio from 67% of the country’s population to 40%, The Indian Express reported.

The Economic Survey for 2020-’21 had also recommended a revision of the Central Issue Prices (CIP) of foodgrains released from the central pool, observing that the food subsidy, at its current level of Rs 4,22,618 crore, is becoming “unmanageably large”, according to The Indian Express.