The UPA government’s meeting on Monday to discuss how to introduce the indispensable Food Security Bill as quickly as possible is a step in the right direction, albeit it was being stonewalled by the principal opposition BJP for much of the working time in the previous Budget session of Parliament. There can be no two opinions of the absolute significance of the landmark bill, when it comes into effect, as it promises to bring under the ambit of guaranteed nutrition more than two-thirds of India’s 1.2 billion people, of which about 800 million suffer from seasonal or chronic hunger. The ambitious pro-poor reform project, UPA’s flagship welfare scheme, in addition to MGNERGA and RTI, had been facing undue obstruction for over four years now, during which time it has seen endless debates arguing on the pros and cons of this mammoth public welfare and food distribution scheme. While naysayers consider it to be an added burden on the government exchequer to the tune of over Rs 1,20,000 crore per year to prop up the ailing public distribution system, the civil society voices, particularly those from the Sonia Gandhi-led National Advisory Council, rightly point out that nutritional guarantee to the poor, particularly women and children, are bound to have multi-faceted benefits, in addition to quelling the hunger of millions of poverty-stricken people living in urban and rural squalor. Under Food Security Bill, it has been commendably proposed that rice will be made available at Rs 3 per kilo, while wheat could be purchased for Rs 2, both at just 10 per cent of their market prices. Once this comes into effect, much of the nutritional deficiencies and problems of endemic hunger could be tackled, though obviously the public distribution system would need to be reformed in the process to ensure minimum loss of grains and government revenues.
While the BJP had been obstructing Parliament which led to the delay in taking up of this crucial Bill, the sliver of good news is that parties look poised in favour of coming together and have a special session of Parliament to deliberate on and pass this watershed bill with suitable amendments. Otherwise, the only option left with the government if it wants to ensure the passage of the bill, is through an ordinance. However, it would be much better if the political parties can hang their guns for a while and share this historical moment to facilitate the smooth passage of a bill that would become the rock bottom guarantee for over 67 per cent of Indian people, its poor. Moreover, it would be certainly much more effective to bolster the public distribution system and give food grains to the poor instead of simple cash handouts through schemes like Aadhar, so as to be foolproof about meeting nutritional challenge and also keep possible food price rise in check. With renowned economists like Amartya Sen backing it, it is time that Food Security Bill sees the light of day and becomes an Act to feed the multitude of hungry mouths.