India has taken the first bold step towards freeing its teeming millions from chronic hunger and malnutrition with the passing of the National Food Security Bill in Lok Sabha. The hype and the drama surrounding the landmark bill, purportedly the UPA’s flagship project for the current tenure, had contributed to several unfair accusations being leveled against the proposed legislation, calling it a money drain and a blatant vote plank. But nine hours of debate in the lower house of Parliament and 318 amendment motions later, the bill has indeed cleared the first hurdle by obtaining the Lok Sabha approval, with the leader of opposition granting full consent and pledging to strengthen the bill once her party comes to power.
This is indeed a great day for Indian democracy, as the Right to Food Security is already 60 years too late, since the mark of any civilised country is how it treats its poor and the downtrodden and how the state, through welfare mechanisms, ensures that no one goes to bed on an empty stomach. Obviously the bill, that had been in the making for the last three years and is touted to be Sonia Gandhi’s pet programme, would need to obtain the second blessing from Rajya Sabha in the monsoon session itself, but evidently, that is assured to not cause a hiccup in the run up to its execution.
That the governments, both at the central and state levels, would now be providing subsidised food grains, especially rice, wheat and pulses, to almost 67 per cent of the population, mostly the rural and urban poor living in abject squalor, is certainly a welcome development, considering the enormous losses incurred by the public exchequer owing to grains rotting in the granaries and warehouses, even when hundreds of millions are not getting enough to eat on a daily basis.
Of course, it is important to remember the caveats posed by the detractors of the proposed legislation, who stress on the stretch that sagging economy would face in the wake of implementing the Food Bill. It is, therefore, extremely important to plug the gaping holes in the public distribution system that seems to be leaking from all points. This, however, could only be achieved if bolstering the supply chain and distribution networks happens side by side with proper implementation of the landmark food bill, leading to judicious allocations of important resources, particularly food grains, to all states according to demographic requirements.
Although one could have a problem with the manner the bill has been shoved down the opposition’s throat by the UPA government, without adequate consultations with the parties or the state governments, partially establishing it as a ‘vote security bill,’ such allegations, even though moderately true, do not hold water when the scale of its long-term impact is measured against the temporary gains that the Congress might have in the coming months leading up to the 2014 general elections. Moreover, food security works better than direct cash transfer since ATMs or banks are still a rarity in many of the remotest corners of the country. Benefits of the food bill notwithstanding, it is fundamental to make the legislation corruption-free, transparent and accountable to the last penny and gram of grain, as well as to the last (actual) beneficiary standing.