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Millennium Post

Food for Nation's thought

The populist Food Security bill is all set to go through in Parliament despite the stalling tactics adopted by the BJP led opposition. The political stakes are very high for the Congress as well as its rivals. Even though it does not want to allow the Congress to walk away with the credit for the bill, the opposition will not make any serious bid to stall it further as no political party wants to be seen as obstructing a pro-people bill.

The Congress hopes to make the bill a major election plank and is keen to launch the scheme on 20 August, on the birthday of the late Rajiv Gandhi. In fact the prime minister was keen to announce it in his Independence Day speech from the ramparts of Red Fort and now the Congress managers are trying to push it through to get it passed at least by next week. Some of the Congress ruled states including Delhi are ready with preparations to launch it.

The Food Security bill, is an electoral gift from the Congress party as a last ditch attempt to influence the voters. The sagging image of the party needs a face-lift. It can be the biggest trump card for the UPA government, at a time when nothing seems to be working well at the moment – neither politics nor economics. On the face of it, it is a good idea and after so many decades of getting independence there are still people, who go to bed hungry will get some food.

The bill envisages the distribution of wheat, rice and coarse grains at just Rs 2, Rs 3 and Rs 1 a kilo each to about 65 per cent of the population – 75 per cent of them in rural areas. The million-dollar question is will it be a game changer for the Congress? Is it deliverable within the next few months to percolate down? Critics argue about the credibility of PDS system, growing cost of food grains and failure to define the beneficiaries as some of the shortcomings of the bill. An estimated 51 per cent of the items currently delivered through PDS are lost due to irregularities. Critics hold that eradication of malnutrition needs more than just removal of hunger, as Food security is necessary but not sufficient for nutrition security. The second is to get all the states on board as some of the non-Congress ruled states are raising doubts. Unless the states come on board, the scheme cannot be implemented well. 

The third is that some economists fear that once it is brought it will affect the already growing fiscal deficit and trade deficit. It may be good politics but it is bad economics according to them. When the country is going through economic slide is this the right time to go for more populist schemes? India’s food subsidies account for nearly 40 per cent of overall subsidy costs and that bill is expected to soar to more than 50 per cent once operationalised. Policymakers assert that the government can find resources provided it cuts down or ends the oil subsidy to offset the additional burden arising out of the Food Security Bill. Now comes the politics of it.

The real reason behind the opposition to the measure even from some Congress allies is that it may give electoral benefits to the Congress in an electoral year. As for the UPA allies, the DMK, which is unhappy with the congress on the 2G and Sri Lanka issues, insists that there should be some amendments on account of its competitive politics in the state. The NCP chief, Sharad Pawar, who is also the Agriculture minister, has raised doubts about protecting the interests of the farmers. The Samajwadi Party (SP) chief Mulayam Singh, whose support is crucial to the stability of UP has openly opposed the bill as ‘anti-farmer’. The Left, too, had attacked the government for trying to force the scheme without an adequate discussion in Parliament about logistics or its impact on farmers.

The BJP’s dilemma is how to oppose this measure as some of the BJP ruled states already have similar schemes. Another serious problem is reconciling some of the states, which already have food security schemes like Tamil Nadu and Chhattisgarh. Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalithaa, Chhattisgarh chief minister Raman Singh and now the Gujarat chief minister Modi have written to the prime minister voicing their concerns. Playing politics, Modi, has demanded a chief ministers conference to discuss the issue. Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar on Monday maintained that he supported the Food Security bill in spirit, but said he had certain reservations about its provisions.
The silver lining for the Congress is that the bill will go though despite all these postures. This is the time for the political parties to learn a lesson or two about the populist schemes. So much money goes down the drain due to the tardy implementation of these schemes.

There are several promises like the distribution of cycles in Bihar, color TV sets in Tamil Nadu, laptops in U.P and several other such free bees, which are promised at the time of elections but not delivered after winning the polls. Instead of these should they not think of coming up with programmes to help the poor help themselves? There is a saying that if you give fish to a person to eat you feed him for the day but if you teach him how to do fishing, you help him for his life.
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