Thursday, July 11, 2013

Food Security Ordinance: its politics and economics

Randeep Wadehra
The food security ordinance has triggered off debates in assorted fora. Apart from various political parties’ reactions – leftists describe it as contempt against the parliament while the BJP calls it an election stunt; informed critics too have not taken kindly to it. The entire controversy focuses on two aspects: political and economic. 

The economics of Food Security Bill is daunting indeed. It would require at least 125,000 crore rupees merely to enable the targeted population’s access to cereals, wheat and rice, say some experts. This will take the costs to 3% of the GDP, which is unacceptably high and unsustainable, they argue. Moreover, the government is relying on old channels of distribution that do not carry much credibility with the targeted beneficiaries. The PDS system is susceptible to massive pilferages. Critics point out that intermediaries, and not intended beneficiaries, will be the eventual recipients of this governmental largesse. There is more than a grain of truth in this argument. Statistics show that the places where schemes like Antyodaya Anna Yojana are in operation, under which the poorest of the poor are supposed to get 35 kg of food grains per family per month, the index of nutrition has not improved in any noticeable manner among the targeted beneficiaries. Obviously, the food grains were diverted to the black market. Such diversions are papered over through fudged records. You can imagine the extent of leakage in real terms when you consider that the number of targeted families is almost 2.50 crores!

However, on the obverse side, the ordinance is really a blessing in disguise. First, it will be a tangible relief to the FCI’s creaking storage facilities thanks to the increased off-take of food grain stocks. Secondly, a much larger population in the country will now enjoy the right to food. Apart from raising nutrition levels, this would offer an effective antidote to the effects of drought etc, since various state governments will have ready stocks of food grains with them to meet the provisions of the food security ordinance, which may soon become a regular law. Nevertheless, this sounds unrealistic, given the state of affairs in the food storage and distribution sector. The PDS is a hopelessly unreliable vehicle for ensuring food security. To make it effective, the government must address the problem of leakages and loopholes. In addition, this scheme will take at least six months to become operational throughout the country. By then it would be time for change in regime. Then, amnesia will set in and, anyway, who cares for the poor, really?

There must have been compelling reasons for the UPA to take the ordinance route to usher in food security just weeks before the parliament’s monsoon session. Perhaps the UPA wanted to avoid detailed discussion on the Bill that has been in the offing since 2011. Moreover, squabbles within the government too might have contributed to this step. It must have taken a lot of effort to bring Sharad Pawar onboard because he had been one of the staunchest opponents of the Food Security Bill. Besides, an inconsistent but important ally like the Samajwadi Party had declared its opposition by stating that the Bill would harm farmers’ interests. Additionally, the BJP led Opposition had been stalling proceedings in the parliament. Never before had so many working days been wasted in the history of the parliament; there is little hope for the conduct of normal business during the forthcoming session. Sensing that any further delay might kill the Bill, the UPA resorted to the ordinance. Of course, it was done in the name of providing succor to the starving millions.

Moreover, there are political dimensions to the ordinance’s promulgation. Elections to some important states like Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh etc are approaching. The Election Commission may issue the notification in September, thus bringing the code of conduct into play. The Opposition had been stalling the Bill’s introduction precisely with this in mind. They know that after the Assembly elections, the Lok Sabha elections will be nigh. The Bill’s successful passage would enable the UPA to have a strong populist vote grabbing argument. To counter the Opposition’s stalling stratagem, the UPA has resorted to this shortcut method, thus eliciting howls of protest and indignation. Moreover, the parliament has to ratify the ordinance within six months, for it to become the law. If the Opposition disrupts the proceedings once again in the coming session, the UPA could conveniently paint it as anti-people during the forthcoming elections. Thus, they hope to put some pressure on the Opposition to participate in the debate and facilitate the ordinance’s eventual ratification. Moreover, food security is now a fig leaf that is expected to help cover UPA’s tainted visage, thanks to all those scams and scandals. That things would actually work out in this manner is something only time will tell. 

In the past, whenever a political outfit has taken the common citizen's gullibility for granted, it has invariably come to grief. The Garibi Hatao slogan of the 1971 vintage could not save Indira Gandhi in 1977. Similarly, the India Shining jingle could not salvage the NDA’s fortunes. People are gradually becoming perceptive. They have started going by the tactile results of various governmental decisions. Likewise, an increasing number of voters is displaying reluctance to be swayed by tall promises and alluring slogans. Bihar is a good example of this. In a state where caste has been the deciding factor during various electoral battles for a very long time, people have started looking at other options too. Fed-up with bad governance, corruption and lawlessness, voters replaced Lalu with Nitish Kumar. If today Nitish has become Bihar’s rising star with claims to having credentials for becoming India’s future Prime Minister, it is thanks to his effective steps in establishing the rule of law in the state, curbing corruption and rejuvenating the government machinery. Of course, he is not a hundred percent success, but considering what the situation was when he took over, his is an impressive achievement. Therefore, the UPA will have to do a lot of introspection on this score. Does it want to continue with its old ways and be cast into history’s dustbin, or would it like to go in for redemption? The time for finding answer to this poser is fast running out for it.

Published in The Financial World dated 11 July 2013

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