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20 August, 2013

Bickering over food security

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

The Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government, which survives in office with the support of parties that are not part of the coalition, is making a bold bid to push through Parliament its ambitious food security scheme which aims at providing grains at low rates to about two-thirds of the country’s 1.2 billion people.

The UPA, which, according to opinion polls, is set to suffer heavy losses in next year’s parliamentary elections, expects the Food Security Bill it drew up in 2011 to turn the tide in its favour. Lack of a consensus held up its passage.

Last month, while Parliament was not in session, the government promulgated the measure as a presidential ordinance. Congress President Sonia Gandhi called a meeting of the 13 state chief ministers belonging to her party and exhorted them to implement the law in letter and in spirit.

Continuous disruption of Parliament has put a question mark over the future of the measure. The ordinance will lapse unless the two houses of Parliament pass a bill to replace it within six weeks of the start of the session.

With Rajnath Singh, president of the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party, assuring support to the bill last week the way appeared to be clear for its passage. But Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi, whom Singh favours as the party’s prime ministerial candidate, threw a spanner in the wheel.

In a letter to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Modi claimed the measure was flawed and could not ensure calorific and nutritional security of the poor. He wanted the government to call a meeting of state chief ministers before enacting the bill. Chhattisgarh’s BJP chief minister Raman Singh and Tamil Nadu’s All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam chief minister J Jayalalithaa have also voiced reservations about the bill.

Their opposition may be motivated by a desire to deny the Congress the electoral dividend it is looking for. But, then, some in the UPA camp are also critical of the measure. National Congress Party chief and Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar has said it will make the beneficiaries lazy and dissuade them from working for a living.

The Samajwadi Party, which supports the government from outside, recently threatened to vote against the bill, peeved by the Congress party’s criticism of its government in Uttar Pradesh for initiating disciplinary action against an Indian Administrative Service officer.

According to government sources, up to 75 per cent of the rural population and 50 per cent of the urban population will get 5kg of grains each month under the measure at rates as low as Rs3 for rice, Rs2 for wheat and Re1 for coarse grains.

Modi has alleged the measure will reduce the entitlement of families below the poverty line, which are now getting 35kg of grains a month at subsidised rates, to 25kg. This is factually incorrect. The government has clarified that families classified as “poorest of the poor”, who are getting 35kg, will continue to enjoy the facility.

Right to Food Campaign, a civil society coalition, has criticised the measure on the ground that it is based on a minimalist vision. It wants a comprehensive law which will take into account the production, procurement, storage and distribution aspects and address the needs of vulnerable groups like migrants and the aged and the differently-abled.

The government has ignored the call to broaden the scope of the bill as it does not want to increase the burden on the exchequer. As the measure now stands, its implementation will require 61.23 million tonnes of grains a year, and the subsidy burden in the current year is estimated at Rs124.73 billion.

India Inc. has opposed the measure, arguing it will impose a heavy financial burden and slow down economic growth. It wants the government to use its resources to help the corporate sector with tax subsidies, claiming industry is the best driver of growth. Corporate India is so engrossed in itself that it does not see the productivity loss resulting from the poor physical status of workers.

The Food Security Bill is not perfect but marks a good beginning. It is in conformity with the Supreme Court’s ruling that right to food is a fundamental right of the citizen. What’s more, it may help plug the loopholes in the present public distribution system. India, which was 106th among 120 countries in the World Hunger Index last year, has to act fast to reduce poverty.--Gulf Today, Sharjah, August 20, 2013.

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