Half-baked scheme

Print edition : August 09, 2013

Congress president Sonia Gandhi and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh with party leaders, including Chief Ministers of Congress-ruled States, at a meeting in New Delhi on July 13 to discuss the Food Security Bill. Photo: S. Subramanium

The UPA government pushes ahead with the Food Security Ordinance, which is of questionable merit, despite opposition from political parties and social organisations.

ON July 5, unmindful of the widespread opposition to the National Food Security Bill, 2013, including from within the Congress, the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government bulldozed ahead with its decision to bring in the National Food Security Ordinance, 2013. On July 6, the President approved the ordinance, bringing into effect a law that would guarantee 5 kilograms of foodgrains per head every month to 67 per cent of the population or 25 kg of foodgrains per household, which is lower than the 35-kg entitlement mandated by the Supreme Court and the calorie requirement recommended by the Indian Council of Medical Research.

The Congress was at a loss to explain the urgency to promulgate the ordinance, which it believes will be a game changer. As pressure mounted from outside and from within to have the Bill discussed in the impending monsoon session of Parliament, the Congress stepped up efforts to evolve a consensus within its ranks and ignored the objections of the opposition parties, several of which had intended to move amendments to the Bill. It also postponed the next Parliament session by more than a fortnight. Simultaneously, it declared its intent to launch the food entitlement law in Delhi and Haryana.

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-ruled States, which averred that they already had models for subsidised food distribution, expressed reservations about the ordinance. As there was no situation of a national, State or financial emergency to promulgate the ordinance, the opposition viewed this as an election gimmick, given that Assembly elections are due this year in six States, including two BJP-ruled States. Most of the opposition-ruled States have fairly efficient food security systems in place and do not see any need to tamper with them.

Prakash Karat, general secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), remarked that the ordinance was a “totally unnecessary step”. The government, he said, had shown contempt for Parliament, where such a major legislation should have been discussed and adopted. The CPI(M) plans to move amendments to the legislation.

D. Raja, Rajya Sabha member belonging to the Communist Party of India, termed it a ploy to “hoodwink” the people. He also maintained that the legislation was totally unacceptable in its present form and that his party would move amendments.

The Trinamool Congress (TMC) termed it an election gimmick. The Janata Dal (United) has accepted it reluctantly. The Samajwadi Party (S.P.) feels that it would harm farmers. It was surprising that the UPA coordination committee meeting in June did not take the S.P’s objections into cognisance. Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chauhan of the BJP stated that his government provided subsidised wheat at Re.1 per kg and that there was nothing new in what the Congress had initiated.

Within the UPA too, the Nationalist Congress Party has expressed its annoyance with the Bill over the expenditure involved; it suggested that food stamps be given instead, an idea proposed by the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI).

But all the criticism has not deterred the Congress from going ahead with its biggest scheme since the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme. Party president Sonia Gandhi held a meeting, which was attended by Congress Chief Ministers, Pradesh Congress Committee chiefs and other party functionaries, to discuss the steps to be taken for its implementation. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and party vice-president Rahul Gandhi were also present. Youth Congress functionaries were given classes about the features of the legislation in order to spread the word.

Right to food campaign

The Right to Food Campaign, which comprises a network of organisations, individuals and representatives of some political parties committed to the realisation of the right to food in India, has expressed its disgust over what it calls a “highly avoidable decision of the Congress-led UPA Cabinet”. It said an issue like food security, which affected millions, required a deep and informed debate in Parliament. It questioned the “hurry” shown to pass the ordinance, especially when a discussion in Parliament was necessary to ensure “collective responsibility in its implementation”. The campaign said it was opposed to this high-handed decision-making style of the government.

It pointed out that “several important parties, including the CPI, the CPI(M), the BJD [Biju Janata Dal], the TMC and the AIADMK [All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam], had moved amendments in the Lok Sabha and these need to be heard”. Most of these parties, it said, had placed amendments asking for universal coverage and opposing the reduction of entitlements from 7 kg to 5 kg per person per mensem. “Parties with large farmer constituencies like the Samajwadi Party and the Shiromani Akali Dal are perturbed at the lack of attention to farmers’ issues. All these voices and concerns need to be heard and debated,” a statement issued by the campaign read. The campaign argued that the present version of the National Food Security Bill was “extremely inadequate and makes a mockery of food security”.

“It provides extremely limited food entitlements, is piecemeal and is nowhere close to providing food security. By providing only 5 kg of grain per person a month, the much-touted PDS [public distribution system] will be providing only 166 grams per person per day in the name food security. It has continued with the regime of fragmenting the poor; if it was APL-BPL [above poverty line-below poverty line] earlier, now it is AAY [Antyodaya Anna Yojana], General Beneficiary and the excluded now (exclusion being as high as 25 per cent of the population in rural areas and 50 per cent in urban areas). It is cereal-based only, leaving the question of nutritional security out of the purview of government accountability. It makes no provisions for production of food or for support of small and marginal farmers who are food producers but very food insecure and poor. It even undermines some of the entitlements ensured by the Supreme Court of India in the Right to Food case. It criminalises mothers with more than two children and children of higher birth-order by not provisioning for maternal entitlements for them. It has no provisions for community kitchens in urban areas or for feeding of the most hungry or to deal with starvation deaths, leaving Gandhiji’s ‘last man’—the starving millions— unaddressed in the law. Finally, the so-called ‘right of food security’ will be completely compromised with an ineffective and weak grievance redress mechanism.”

The demand of the Left parties as well as the Right to Food Campaign has been for a comprehensive food security Act. The campaign urged the Prime Minister and the UPA government “to conduct business in Parliament and see that all parties participate actively in debating, discussing and passing a comprehensive Food Security Act”. For the ordinance to have any effect, it has to be passed by Parliament within the next six months and, therefore, it has been said rightly that there is an opportunity to strengthen the Bill by incorporating the amendments as proposed by several parties.

The government is in a hurry to identify the beneficiaries even though the results of the Socio-Economic and Caste Census are awaited. This hurry will lead to a lot of exclusion, fears the Right to Food Campaign; it will also leave no scope for community participation and monitoring.

“The Right to Food Campaign has been consistently demanding a comprehensive food security law that incentivises agriculture production, provides for local procurement and local storage, along with a decentralised and deprivatised universal PDS; special entitlements for children, mothers, the aged, the disabled, widows, migrants and destitute persons including universalised ICDS [Integrated Child Development Services]; monthly pensions, community kitchens and destitute feeding programmes; effective measures for grievance redress, transparency and accountability and safeguards against commercial interference including GMs [genetically modified foods] in any of the food/nutrition-related schemes and against the introduction of cash transfers in place of PDS. We demand that these concerns be addressed as amendments through an immediate parliamentary debate on the Food Security Ordinance,” it stated. It has demanded the removal of a clause that enables a government to escape liability to provide compensation during floods, droughts, fires, earthquakes, and so on.

The efforts of the Congress to blame the opposition for delaying the Food Security Bill may come a cropper if it does not go through the process of putting the systems in place and incorporate the amendments before the ordinance lapses. It will also cause resentment among the governments and people of several States if the better food security systems in place there are substituted by weak and truncated ones.

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