When an elected government in the fifth year of its term takes any action, no matter how noble it is, it smacks of a handout to voters in the run up to the election. No wonder many have attributed a political motive to the introduction on Wednesday of the much touted food security bill, which has been on the agenda of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) for the last few years.
The government promulgated an ordinance on the bill that many believe could be a game changer for next year’s elections. An ordinance is issued by the cabinet when the parliament is not in session. The executive order must be passed by parliament within six months of its issuance.
With the monsoon session of parliament expected to be called in a month’s time, the introduction of the proposed landmark legislation clearly seems to be an attempt to score political brownie points in several crucial states.
The food security bill is a very ambitious program meant to provide subsidized food to almost two-thirds of the nation. The project aims to spend $4 billion or more annually and distribute cheap grains to around 70 percent of India's 1.2 billion people.
According to a BBC report, proposes to provide a kilo of rice for three rupees, a kilo of wheat for two rupees and millet for one rupee per kilogram. The food subsidies will cover 75 percent of Indians living in rural areas and 50 percent of the urban population. The whole program will cost the government 1.3 trillion rupees, or $23.9 billion.
Food security is part of the government’s larger entitlement program, Right to Food, a constitutional right on par with the right to freedom of speech and right to equality. The main aim is not only to target hunger but also to address the issue of malnutrition in the country.
The Wall Street Journal remarks on the ambition of the program, being introduced in a country that is home to around one-third of the world's extreme poor, according to the World Bank. Further, half of children below five suffer from malnutrition in India, while a third of women are underweight, according to the Indian government's National Family Health Survey.”
Development economist Jean Dreze is quoted as saying, “In terms of nutrition indicators, India is very far behind. The food security bill is an opportunity to address these gaps, and to create political momentum for further action.”
A view shared by Harsh Mander, a member of the National Advisory Council (NAC), an advisory body headed by the Congress President Sonia Gandhi at the forefront of formulating the bill.
Despite not being happy with the present format of the draft ordinance pitched by the government on Tuesday, Mander told The Diplomat that the measure will “make the state morally and legally accountable to ensure that no one is hungry and malnourished in the country. For the first time the bill has a provision for a universal maternity program that gives Rs 1000 ($100) per month to a pregnant mother for six months to take care of her nutrition.”
But the critics of the program say that it is a burden on economy and it is an open invitation to corruption as the past experiences suggest that intended beneficiaries never get benefitted by the project in the same way as it is designed.
“We know from experience that food distribution program is an extension and magnification of a license to corruption,” New Delhi-based economist Dr. Surjit Bhalla told The Diplomat.
An outspoken critic of the UPA government’s economic policies, Bhalla opines that “the major problem is that the money spent does not reach the poor. Instead, three-fourths of the money meant for those living in poverty goes to the middle class and upper class.”
Bhalla added, “If you are really serious about addressing the issue of malnutrition then you should focus on water and sanitation projects.”
Mander takes another view, saying, “The fear of corruption should not come in the way of peoples’ welfare. Yes, it would have been prudent for the government to have an independent enforcement mechanism, which was originally envisaged in the food security bill.”
He added, “Every second child in India is malnourished. The bill is a great investment on future of India.”
Meanwhile, speculation in Delhi is mounting that the government is advancing the food security bill in a bid to generate electoral support. Questions are also being raised about the timing of the program, with the opposition asking why the government chose to issue an ordinance when introducing the measure.
Further, some political analysts believe that by introducing the ordinance the Congress wants to wrest political initiative from the opposition, which has been haranguing the government over corruption charges amid an economic slowdown.
In response, the Congress-led government claims that the bill is one of its major poll promises, which it does not want to take the risk of waiting any longer.
Reports suggest that it will be difficult for any political party to oppose the bill in parliament when it is introduced in the monsoon session.