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Food keeps Paswan’s Bengal plate empty

Calcutta, June 27: Union food minister Ram Vilas Paswan’s efforts to get the views of the Bengal government on the National Food Security Act have drawn a blank as Mamata Banerjee’s office has not given an appointment to him tomorrow citing prior engagements of the chief minister.

The state wants 100 per cent coverage for its people under the Act. Sources in the state government said Mamata had reservations about the Act, passed when the UPA II was in power, in its current form and wanted to voice the demand “on a bigger platform”.

“The Union food minister’s office had sought an appointment with the chief minister between noon and 1pm tomorrow. But time could not be given because of prior engagements of the chief minister,” a senior Nabanna official said.

The official said it appeared there was “no political reason” behind not meeting Paswan. “The chief minister met Union power minister Piyush Goyal a few days ago. It appears the chief minister wants to ensure that her concerns and demand are heard on a bigger platform,” he added.

Another Nabanna official said the Bengal government was planning to take up the issue at a meeting in Delhi on July 14 to seek the views of state governments on the Act. “The Prime Minister could be present at the meeting. Moreover, representatives of all states are expected to attend the meeting and it would give the Bengal government a larger audience,” the official said.

Paswan has been touring the states in the run-up to the meeting. The National Food Security Act was passed in September 2013 and its provisions have to be implemented within a year.

According to the Act, a maximum of 75 per cent of the rural populace and 51 per cent of urban people can be brought under its ambit. Each beneficiary will get at least 5kg of foodgrain at subsidised rates every month.

The Bengal government, however, wants the entire population of the state — 9.2 crore — to be made beneficiaries of the Act.

“I can say that we will demand the inclusion of 100 per cent of the state’s population under the Act as our chief minister believes that nobody should be deprived of foodgrains,” said Jyotipriya Mullick, the Bengal food and supplies minister.

State officials said the Bengal government did not want to take unpopular decisions and so, wanted the entire population on the list of beneficiaries.

“According to an estimate based on the Socio Economic and Caste Census, 6.01 crore people of Bengal will get grains (at subsidised rates) if the act is implemented in its present form. But we want to extend the benefit to all the 9.2 crore people of the state. The Centre will have to shoulder the entire financial burden,” minister Mullick said.

Senior Bengal government officials said that if 6.01 crore people were brought under the Act’s ambit, 38 lakh tonnes of rice would be required. If 9.2 crore people are to be brought under the Act, the requirement will go up to 52 lakh tonnes.

“It is not possible for the Centre to accept the state’s demand. Despite knowing this, the state government wants to put pressure on Delhi as the ruling establishment in Bengal does not want to be seen as siding with a plan that leaves out more than 3 crore people ahead of the 2016 Assembly polls,” an official said.

According to the officials, if the Centre refuses to accept the demand, the state government would be in trouble ahead of the crucial elections because it cannot afford to provide subsidised grains to the estimated 3 crore people who would be left out of the scheme’s ambit.

In several areas such as Jungle Mahal, closed tea gardens and Aila-affected regions, the state government supplies rice at Rs 2 a kg to non-BPL people. Around Rs 1,200 crore is spent annually by the Bengal administration to run the scheme, which has over 1 crore beneficiaries.

“If the government has to provide subsidised grain to another 3 crore people, around Rs 4,000 crore will be required a year. That’s a huge amount for a cash-strapped state,” an official of the food and supplies department said.

Food minister Mullick said that at the July 14 meeting, the state government would also demand funds to increase the storage capacity of Bengal. “We have a storage capacity of 68,000 tonnes. Where will we store such a huge quantum of food grain (to be provided under the Act)?” he said.