Indian Decade

Food Bill Stumbling?

India’s proposed National Food Security Bill would help feed hundreds of millions. But can the govt afford it?

Indian Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar has lashed out at Congress President Sonia Gandhi’s dream project, namely the National Food Security Bill, which the government introduced in the Lok Sabha on December 22.

Pawar went on record as saying that there are insufficient funds to implement the Food Security Bill in its present form. However, he said “This is not a question of [an] individual. This is a question of investment in agriculture.”

The bill, if it became law and was fully implemented, would cost the national exchequer Rs 1.1 lakh crore ($22 billion) annually in agriculture liabilities alone, but would provide subsidized food grain to more than 60 percent of the country’s population.

Pawar had opposed the bill at a meeting of the union cabinet in December, but it was passed without discussion when it was brought before the full cabinet a week later. As Sanjay Kumar noted here last month, the draft bill is set to offer “significant government subsidies for staples like rice and wheat for India’s poorest citizens, and effectively gives a legal right to food for roughly two-thirds of the country’s 1.2 billion people.”

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The bill is the United Progressive Alliance government’s third major common man-centric project, and comes six years after it brought the Right to Information Act and Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act. The bill vows that there will be hot mid-day meals provided for children up to 14 years of age, and Rs 6,000 ($121) for all pregnant and lactating women. As noted by NDTV, it also promises 75 percent of rural population and 50 percent of urban households the right to 7 kilograms of food grains per person per month, at Rs.3 per kg for rice, Rs.2 per kg for wheat and Rs.1 per kg for coarse grains to the beneficiaries.

The government is keen on fully implementing the food security program by 2014, in time for the next general election. It’s Gandhi’s dream project, and a potential game changer for the Congress at the next election.

However, a number of questions remain unanswered, including most importantly where the resources will come from to fund such a move, and how such vast quantities of food grains can be guaranteed. Ultimately, the future of the bill may depend on the government’s ability to answer a single question: how to pay for it.