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Politics & economics of Food Bill

The story of passage of the landmark Food Security bill in Lok Sabha was interesting: marked by moments of suspense. The opposition, particularly the BJP leaders, were on the horns of a dilemma; whether to help in passage of the bill or install it, was the question haunting them. They did not want to give credit to the ruling UPA government for enacting this populist measure yet they could not oppose it because they of fear losing votes.

They were happy that the Bill was obstructed by a handful of Andhra MPs, opposing the bifurcation of the state. That was the reason that the BJP desisted from supporting the motion moved by Parliamentary Affairs Minister, Kamal Nath, to suspend the obstructing members belonging to the Congress and the TDP. The motion could not, therefore, make a headway. They next day the Speaker, Meira Kumar, invoked her authority and suspended the erring members for the rest of the session.     

The decks were cleared for a debate and the passage of the Bill. But the vexed question before the BJP leaders remained; if they opposed the measure, it may create the impression that they were against providing food to the poor at cheap rate. They, therefore, fell in line and finally supported the Food Security Bill? Apparently, they feared that they might lose votes if they continue to openly oppose a progressive measure of this magnitude. The bill received support across the board as opposition parties felt they might earn voters’ wrath if they oppose the populist measure months before the general elections.

The food security law might never have come about but for Sonia Gandhi’s initiative and then her pushing. As supreme leader of the ruling UPA, she gave no choice to the Manmohan Singh government wriggle out. Sixty-six years after independence India managed to clear the Food Security Bill that is aimed at securing two-third of the country (75 per cent of rural population, and 50 per cent of urban) from the pangs of hunger and rescue them from mal-nutrition.

Many argued against the food security law, citing economic logic, especially at a time of lower growth and dimmer economic prospects. But it is just at such a time that the really needy look for succor. Economic grounds had also been invoked when the rural employment programme – NREGA – had been ushered in. But the country saw how that scheme, although its implementation was faulty and it suffered from corruption, helped shore up consumer demand and the economy when the worst was feared at a time of international slump.

It took four years for the second UPA government to get its flagship scheme to see the light of the day. But it now has barely eight months to convey the bill’s political message to the voters. The bill is slated for discussion and passage on Monday in the Rajya Sabha. The Congress leaders have been pinning their hopes on schemes like Food Security and the Direct Benefit Transfer (DBT) law to help the party retain power after the general elections next May. The food bill aims at giving 75 per cent of rural population and 50 per cent of urban people access to subsidised food grains while DBT will transfer cash directly to the beneficiaries.

A bigger challenge now lies in actually rolling out the benefits and building the congress campaign effectively round it. ‘We must admit that existing schemes have many flaws. If we lack sincerity and accountability in implementation of the food law, it will be a grave injustice to the people’, Congress President Sonia Gandhi pointed out during debate on the Food Security Bill in the Lok Sabha.
Within three years of enacting the National Rural Employment Guarantee act (NREGA), the UPA hurriedly amended the law in October, 2009. The amending bill said that NREGA will be named after Mahatma Gandhi and be known as MGNREGA. The move was made after some opposition ruled states, particularly Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, trumpeted the scheme as their own.
Congress leaders admit that the task of propagating the Centre’s achievement will be more difficult. About 15 states have already launched their own schemes to provide subsidised food-grains to the poor. Tamil Nadu has gone a step further.

The Jayalalithaa government provides free food-grains to families below poverty lines. Besides, BJP ruled Chhattisgarh and BJD ruled Orissa have their own laws to give legal entitlement to cheap food along the lines of UPA’s food bill. The Congress will need better packaging to sell something that is already in circulation in many large states. The successful implementation of the food scheme also depends heavily on the state governments. The 304 amendments to the bill moved in the Lok Sabha clearly show that the opposition parties are in no mood to let the Congress take all credit.

MGNREGA and farm loan waiver were believed to have contributed significantly to the Congress Victory in 2009 Lok Sabha elections. For 2014, the Congress plank of providing food security will require more efforts to bring it electoral benefits. It is BJP’s slogan, Congress Mukt Bharat
versus Bhookh mukt Bharat. IPA
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