After dilly-dallying for almost its whole term, the UPA-2 finally mustered enough consensus within its rank to pass an Ordinance to implement the long-pending Food Security Bill, in the process ducking Parliamentary process. The bill, one of Congress Party’s 2009 election promises, guarantees cheap foodgrains to three-fourths of rural and half the urban population as a right. Without getting into the debate about poverty line per se, this is tacit acceptance by the government that a large mass of Indian population is living in distress.
But before commenting on the timing and manner of its introduction, let’s have a look at what it promises.
- Up to 75% of the rural population and up to 50% of the urban population will get an entitlement of 5 kg foodgrains per person per month at subsidized prices of Rs. 3, Rs. 2, Rs. 1 per kg. for rice, wheat, coarse grains respectively
- Nutritional needs of women and children will get a special focus. Pregnant women and lactating mothers, besides being entitled to nutritious meals as per the prescribed nutritional norms, will also receive maternity benefit of at least of Rs. 6000/-
- The Centre will decide the state-wise limit and each state will be required to actually identify beneficiaries.
- The bill provides for a grievance-redress mechanism and penalty for non-compliance by a public servant or authority
- States/Union Territories will provide food security allowance in case of non-supply of foodgrains
- The Bill also contains provisions for home delivery of foodgrains, application of information and communication technology (ICT), including end-to-end computerisation, leveraging ‘Aadhaar’ for identification of beneficiaries, diversification of commodities under Targeted PDS etc.
- For the issuance of ration card, the eldest woman (of eighteen years of age or above) will be treated as the head of the household.
- Provisions will be made for disclosure of records relating to PDS, social audits and setting up of Vigilance Committees in order to ensure transparency and accountability
According to a government press release, the total estimated annual foodgrains requirement for these entitlements is 612.3 lakh tons and corresponding estimated food subsidy is about Rs.1,24,724 crore for the financial year 2013-14.
If you are one of those ideologically unopposed to the entitlement mode then you would be happy with the government’s decision to pass the ordinance. BJP, which itself runs one of the best PDS and near universal food entitlement program, should be ashamed of opposing the bill just for the heck of it. I can understand why some other parties like Samajwadi Party might be unhappy- because this bill will make them do the hard yards on administering the benefits. It is no secret that in terms of mal-administration Uttar Pradesh is the new Bihar.
So Congress was left with little choice but to force the opposition’s hand. Make an ordinance and let parties scuttle it in the parliament. This in a nutshell is Congress’s strategy. I suspect it is an efficient strategy and should result in the formal passage of the bill.
I know many readers might say that the bill is politically motivated. What else can explain why Congress is pushing it just before the elections. True, but then this is a democracy. This is how things happen – for political gain. As Pravin Jha, professor of economic at JNU said in a TV debate – “bhaagte bhoot ki langot hi kaafi hai!” Roughly translated it means something is better than nothing.
As far as implementation is concerned, it would vary in different parts of the country. That is because states like Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Himachal and Chhatisgarh – all of which already cover most of the their population – would have little problem implementing it. In fact, they are already implementing it. Some states like Odisha were just waiting in the wings for the Centre to announce the scheme so as to know how much extra needs to be spent from the State’s treasury.
But states like UP, Bihar and Jharkhand may take six months to move on this – and that too is a best case scenario.
All in all, Congress has some way to go before reaping the full political benefits of the food security ordinance.