If assessed purely on humanitarian grounds, it would be nearly politically incorrect to oppose the Food Security Bill. Who, for example, would want to say that it is bad to feed the poor, or improve the abysmal nutrition levels in the country?
But it is the method that one certainly needs to question. Despite all calculations that the government has made about the fruits it shall reap in 2014 from the grains that it will distribute, there are several dangers associated with implementation of this behemoth scheme, for repercussions may be felt at a time when it may be too late to roll back.
1. Can we sustain the scheme: The Food bill aims to provide rice for Rs 3 per kg, wheat for Rs 2 per kg and coarse cereals at Re 1 per kg to 800 million people. This may put the government in the Guinness Book of World Records, but is also the surest way of ensuring the country’s bankruptcy. With the current account deficit already bleeding the rupee, the additional Rs 1.37 lakh crore food bill is only going to make the gap even more insurmountable to bridge.
2. Will the right people benefit: Rajiv Gandhi had once said that only 10 paisa of a Re reaches the intended beneficiary. How will the government ensure that the subsidised food reaches all those who are poverty stricken? There is no firm data and indisputable lists of poor people – and several indicators are used to determine who really is poor. The government will in time have to fall back on the Public Distribution System, which is already a very faulty system, wherein a lot of the grain actually makes it to the open market rather than those for whom it is intended.
3. Will a direct cash transfer methodology really work: The government has bravely put forth the suggestion of direct cash transfer to address the problem of PDS leakages. The basic premise that all poor people will have bank accounts is itself wrong. One wonders how the government expects the poorest of poor who don’t have enough money to manage two square meals, to have bank accounts! In case of any doubt, we have the kerosene subsidy staring us in the face as a stark example of failure.
4. What happens during droughts, floods or failed monsoons: There are two fallouts in such a condition. One, there would not be enough grain to procure and distribute among the poor leading to a crisis. Second, imagine the pressure it will put on prices of grains by the demand- supply logic – and where will that leave the lower middle and middle class people, who are already brutally hit by spiralling food prices.
5. Adverse impact on world prices: When 67% of the second most populous country in the world is to be fed subsidised food grains, it will undoubtedly push up world food prices especially in conditions when we cannot find sufficient grain within the country. And shortage will be a certain reality, especially as the farm sector in India is growing at turtle speed of about 4%.
Given such arguments which allude to ample negative consequences, it follows that the citizenry will have to bristle under Food Security impact rather than benefit from it.
For the severe economic blow that we will all be dealt with, it becomes more obligatory for the government to start policies which will help generate employment and lead to income generation for the poor rather than their simply resorting to dole outs.
Employment schemes not only push the economy in the right direction, they lead to infrastructure development and create a more economically engaged population, which is more socially productive and contributes to nation building.
To be able to buy food also lends to people more self respect and greater value of their worth than those who survive on free ration, leaving their mind’s to be the devil’s workshop.
Whatever may be the debate, one thing that is more than apparent is that the genesis of the food scheme is not rooted in any motive of philanthropy or empathy generated from the keen ache felt by the poor, but purely to keep poor people poor, so as to sustain vote banks.
The ‘sabko khana khilao’ reeks strongly of odour of self interest and is strangely reminiscent of Indira Gandhi’s empty ‘Garibi Hatao’ slogan.
Unfortunately, politics of this country seem to be coming a full circle.