As the Cabinet meets today to promulgate the Food Security Bill as an ordinance, what needs to be kept in mind is that the matter is of pressing concern as the fate of over 800 million hungry mouths depends on it. There is no doubt that the country needs food security and the bill does aim to provide legal right to subsidised food grain to nearly 67 per cent of the Indian population. The bill is also the result of a four-year old promise that the Congress party had made in its 2009 election manifesto, which, along with the crucial Land Acquisition Bill, remains an unfinished business of the UPA-II government. The bill, which seeks to dissolve the prioritisation and general classification of beneficiaries and promises to provide standard allocation of 5 kilos of food grains to an individual citizen every month and the rate of Rs 3 per kilo of rice and Rs 2 per kilo of wheat, is, of course, a landmark proposal, will bring under the ambit of guaranteed nutrition about two-third of India’s 1.2 billion people, particularly the women and children, who have been suffering seasonal and chronic hunger for decades. This ambitious pro-poor reform project has been touted as UPA’s flagship welfare scheme, along with RTI and MGNREGA, even though it would mean a state expenditure of Rs 1,20,000 crore per year. But as the Planning Commission points out, the absolute necessity of the food bill overrides any other concern, including the financial constraint that the opponents of the bill proffer to stonewall the passing of this significant signpost in India’s march towards conquering hunger and malnutrition.
However, what must not be forgotten is that the food bill should not become a poll plank for the UPA, which is reeling under a deleterious slew of scams and exposé. Otherwise, the tearing hurry and the sudden zeal to pass the bill, especially as an ordinance, that the Congress-led UPA-II is displaying indicates a desperate attempt to appease the disgruntled citizens of the country. It is extremely unfortunate that even after 65 years of independence, political parties have turned food security into a dirty game of one-upmanship, instead of coalescing to pass the bill, with adequate clauses to address the loopholes that it has in the current format. Moreover, mere passing of the bill would not plug the gaping holes in the public distribution system, with the nation’s storage and supply systems still woefully lagging behind to serve the important but far-reaching goals of the food bill. It is essential to remember that implementation of the food bill, and ensuring a corruption-free distribution of the subsidised food grains, are issues that are bound to stare the government in its face, and after the revelations of the discrepancies in other UPA schemes such as MGNREGA, that will remain a challenge. With the election-bound Congress-led UPA government’s floor majority now in doldrums, it’s the actual availability of food, rather than dangling the bill before India’s hungry millions, that will make a real difference.