The Lok Sabha on August 26 passed UPA`s ambitious Food Security Bill and it will in all likelihood be passed by the Rajya Sabha too. Literally burning the midnight oil, the lower House gave its nod to the bill which seeks to provide highly subsidised food grains to nearly one-third of the population of India. They will be given a legal entitlement for getting subsidised grains under the Targeted Public Distribution System (TPDS); the beneficiary will be entitled to 5 kg of rice, wheat or coarse cereals at Rs 3, Rs 2 and Re 1 per kg a month.
Moreover, the entitlement of Antodaya Anna Yojana households - the poorest of the poor - will continue at 35 kg per month and the right cannot be claimed if there is a situation like war, flood, drought, cyclone or earthquake, which may affect supplies. Also, the prices of the grains will remain the same for a three year period and may undergo revision after that.
However, the question is, whether going into the election mode, will the bill be a game-changer for the Congress in 2014? Secondly, whether its implementation and delivery will be smooth? And thirdly, has the UPA government put a burden on the exchequer which will be difficult, if not impossible to bear?
The timing of the bill is definitely circumspect. Food security was promised by the Congress to the electorate of India in the 2009 manifesto and it had promised to implement it within 100 days of forming the government. But, it waited till the next General Elections were round the corner to table it in Parliament. Now, the Congress will surely go to the polls next year projecting itself as the messiah of the poor.
Yes, UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi in a game of one-upmanship has once again tried to reinforce her party as a party of the `Aam Admi` just before the crucial polls, much like the `Garibi Hatao` slogan of her mother-in-law and former PM of India, Indira Gandhi, who used it to her success in the 1971 General Elections.
Sonia, in her maiden speech in Parliament in UPA-2 made it amply clear to all the political parties that there was no room for manoeuvre and whoever opposed the bill would be seen to be anti-poor. No wonder Mulayam Singh Yadav even after taking a jibe at the Congress for not bringing in the bill earlier when people were dying of starvation in states like Maharashtra, voted in favour of the bill. And also no wonder, the main Opposition, the Bhartiya Janata Party, voted for the bill even after calling it a political gimmick and a `vote security bill`.
The Congress would be hoping that the food bill pays them dividends in 2014. They desperately need it, with their image having taken a beating, hit by allegations of scams and corruption and policy paralysis. The party did benefit in 2009 on the plank of MNREGA.
However, the euphoric Congress got a rude reality check a day after the bill was passed, when the already battered Rupee touched 66.30 against the dollar and when the stocks plunged on worries that UPA`s flagship programme would widen the fiscal deficit as it would push government spending.
It will not be misplaced to say that the Congress-led UPA government mismanaged the economy for over four years and now are coming with legislations that may give them the chance of coming back to power again. It has been reported that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and even Finance Minister P Chidambaram were not too keen on giving the green signal to Sonia`s dream project. However, the Congress chairperson had her way telling the House that the "issue was not if we have resource, we will have to find the resources." "The issue is not if we can do it or not, we have to do it," she emphasised. Clearly, Sonia`s eyes were on 2014 and she has taken the big leap as far as her party is concerned.
Sonia described the measure as a “big message” about India’s ability to take responsibility for the food security of its people and said that the bill would fulfil her party`s promise to “wipe out hunger and malnutrition.” All that sounds good but does our economy, which is not in a very healthy state at the moment, afford nearly 20 billion dollars that would be required to feed the poor. Nobody, in their sanest mind and having empathy for their fellow human beings, will grudge food to those who go hungry. And nobody, with a human heart will want someone to die of hunger while one`s own stomach is full. And India has always been committed to being a welfare state. However, the government of the day has to view all the pros and cons when announcing welfare measures and it definitely should not smack of populism.
Regarding the implementation of the bill, how is the government going to ensure that it will be delivered smoothly and there will be no leakages, just like so many other pro-people programmes. And what about the storage of grains, for example in states like Punjab, where due to lack of facilities, tonnes of grains have rotted in the past. The Opposition has raised the issue of procurement and storage and also leakages and both Sonia and Food Minister KV Thomas have accepted that there are grey areas which need to be taken care of. Basically in an election year what has the Congress done – it has gone ahead and offered cheap rice and wheat to the poor, much like the sops that the parties in the states do when confronted with Assembly elections.
Moreover, the food security scheme is facing opposition from some state governments, who say that they have their own subsidized distribution schemes. For example, Chief Minister of Chhattisgarh has opposed the scheme and beating the Congress to the pole, passed the Chhattisgarh Food Security Act 2012, which covers 90 percent of the state`s population. Tamil Nadu and Madhya Pradesh are some of the states which also have their own subsidized grain distribution schemes.
Post Script: In an attempt to assuage fears P Chidambaram said - "(Fiscal deficit of) 4.8 percent of GDP and the absolute number indicated in the Budget is a red line and the red line will not be breached. We have provided enough money for the cost of the food security programme for the remainder of the current fiscal." For the sake of the Indian economy and the people of this country, one only hopes that the Finance Minister`s words are true, though not many would be ready to share his optimism at the moment.