Food Security Bill vis à vis India’s Financials: Food for Thought?

The 2014 elections are just around the corner, and it’s time for populist moves and one-upmanship by both the incumbent government and the opposition. Not surprisingly, the UPA pushed the National Food Security Bill through the Rajya Sabha on September 2 within a week of the nod from the Lok Sabha, and the administration is now undoubtedly going to brandish it as the potent weapon running up to the elections next year. Conversely, the opposition is already sharpening its fangs for an all-out battle against the provisions of the bill, and even more so against the way it was pushed into Parliament.

Food Security Bill: What does it mean for the beneficiaries?

Ostensibly, the Food Security Bill—touted by the government as a landmark legislation in India’s constitutional history—has a “bite” for almost all sections of the population: 67% of the 1.2 billion population will receive grains with a subsidized price-freeze for three years; mothers-to-be will get free meals till the baby’s first six postnatal months, and children upto 14 years will receive free meals.

The specific stipulations in the bill, down to the nitty gritty of who is going to get how many kgs of grains, only accentuate the ambitious nature of the Food Security Bill. With numerous government schemes announced every other day and a poor follow up rate in their implementation, one cannot help being skeptical of the provisions of the Food Security Bill. Not surprisingly, experts have already called for a systematic selection of the beneficiaries, and a revamped public distribution system (PDS) to ensure that the provisions reach the intended beneficiaries. The PDS in various states is still not subject to a uniform yardstick, and some states are ahead of others in efficient functioning of the system. In the absence of a proficient distribution system, the past has often been a story of rotting grains in godowns while the needy wait for supplies that never arrive.

The problem of inefficient distribution is a worry for the government too. The Centre has announced that it will host a meeting with food secretaries of various states on September 23, where discussions will be held to facilitate smooth implementation of the Food Security Bill.

Food Security Bill to drive national debate till 2014?

On the other hand, protagonists in the opposition camp argue that the Food Security Bill will imply a huge outflow from the exchequer, leading to a severe crunch in India’s financial arithmetic. The cost implications for putting the Food Security Bill into practice is ranging from the government’s own estimate of Rs 25,000 crore to an astronomical Rs 200,000 crore voiced by some quarters in the opposition. Another charge leveled at the Food Security Bill is that its provisions will entail grain procurement of 62 million tonnes a year, leading to additional pressure on the exchequer and a possible inflation of food prices.

The next few days will likely see stepped up rhetoric from both the government and the opposition, and it will be a busy primetime on most news channels. Both sides will go all out to take extreme positions in the debate and harden their stance, and the discerning public will surely get to hear the clang of this debate right up to the general elections, and perhaps even later when the new government assumes office and declares its intent on the bill.

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