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It is packaging, stupid!

It is packaging, stupid!
Highlights

If 'pelalu' you and I had enjoyed in our childhood could become the much-sought-after popcorn at exhibitions and railway stations, the ubiquitous fair...

If 'pelalu' you and I had enjoyed in our childhood could become the much-sought-after popcorn at exhibitions and railway stations, the ubiquitous fair price shops and Anganwadis can become the face of food security, and make the Congress laugh all the way to its vote bank with or without BJP help. If the party that used to be a party with a difference votes for the Food Security Bill, as and when Parliament is convened, the Congress gifts itself with a talking point. And if it votes against the Bill or stalls its adoption, well, the party in eternal sulk will reward the Grand Old Party with a powerful weapon to beat it.

If you think the BJP is faced with a Hobson's choice, you are mistaken. Its leaders have not offered a single cogent argument against the Bill. In fact, they are eager to rubber-stamp the new law if it is tweaked here and there. Put differently, the BJP has fallen lock, stock and barrel to the Congress party's packaging of the Bill as the world's largest experiment in food security by meeting food needs of 75 per cent rural households and 50 percent urban households.

The Congress is smelling victory already. Consider how its official Number 2, Rahul Gandhi, and Information and Broadcasting Minister Manish Tewari are taunting the Opposition. Rahul says the BJP is standing in the way of helping the poor. Tiwari laments the Food Security Bill has been sacrificed at the altar of political opportunism during the budget session of parliament.

"Can there be a bigger travesty of both politics and policy in this country", he asks in all seriousness. But Tiwari is short on specifics, like most of his colleagues. This is not the way to conduct a public discourse on what the Congress leadership considers as a 'very ambitious and breathtaking' pro-poor law in its conception and planned execution. So let us look at the summary of the Food Security Bill prepared by noted development economist, Jean Dr�ze for the Tehelka magazine. The learned professor had conceptualized the rural job guarantee scheme as a member of the first National Advisory Council, (NAC) after 2004 elections.

A trenchant critic of market-driven policies, he stands for a new deal to overcome issues like hunger, malnutrition and gender inequality. According to him, the Food Security Bill will cover Public Distribution System (PDS), Mid-day Meal Scheme, Anganwadis, Nutrition Programmes, and Indira Gandhi Matritva Sahyog Yojana amongst others. These are all on-going programmes. The PDS dates back to the Second World War days, in a manner of speaking.

It has undergone several changes down the years. The short-lived VP Singh and Deve Gowda governments tinkered with it. So did the government of PV Narasimha Rao, who had launched a new version authored by K Venugopal, from Barmer in Rajasthan. Venugopal's name is familiar to the Telugu-speaking. He was the brain behind NTR's successful rice scheme which borrowed the concept from C N Annadurai's plank: "Moonru padi latchiyam, oru padi nichaiyam' (Four-and-a-half kg for Re 1 is our aim)".

Like PDS, the mid-day meal scheme is not new to this country. Nor the nutrition programmes which date back to the Fourth Plan period when they were introduced to help people affected by severe drought in various parts of the country. So what is so great about the Food Security Bill? It is packaging, stupid!

Rebranding an ongoing programme or repositioning an old programme is not new to us. Successive governments since 1977 have indulged in this luxury in the name of helping the poor. But the way the Food Security Bill has been packaged and marketed as the answer to the problem of hunger has no parallels. Just as there is no parallel to the way the rural job guarantee scheme has been projected as the greatest vehicle invented by UPA-1 to remove joblessness in rural India.

The Congress could get away with its branding largely because of BJP's failure. It is a pity because, as Jana Sangh, the BJP was a constituent of the Morarji Desai's Janata government that had offered an antyodaya scheme. If we brush up our memory, the job scheme can be traced to the advocacy of a food-for-work programme by labour leader VV Giri as the Vice-President of India.

Frankly speaking, one need not grudge the temptations of a ruling dispensation to sway the voters with magic wands. But the problem with the Food Security Bill is that it doesn't offer a road map to remove distortions in PDS, food procurement or nutrition delivery. Nor does it seek to universalize the success story of Tamil Nadu and Chhattisgarh with the fair price shops. Expectedly, the UPA-II has not bothered to look at the PV plan that focused on food reach to far-flung, hilly, remote and inaccessible areas where a substantial section of the poor live, and offered up to 20 kg per card.

Instead, it seeks to create super vigilantes under the garb of National and State level Food Commissions and the District Grievance Redressal Officers (DGROs) in the name of transparency. Going by Jean Dr�ze's summary, the main function of the State Commission is to monitor and evaluate the implementation of the Act (Food Security Act), give advice to the State governments and their agencies, and inquire into violations of entitlements (either suo motu or on receipt of a complaint, and with "all the powers of a civil court while trying a suit under the Code of Civil Procedure 1908").

In so many words, we are going to see increase in the number of super regulators when the need of the day is clearly a regulator to regulate the regulators. The Congress managers have cleverly deflected public attention from the fine print and shifted our focus to Rs 1.3 lakh crore subsidy. The game appears to have paid dividends since people have begun to see the Food Security Bill as a determined onslaught on poverty and hunger by Congress chief Sonia Gandhi.

The writer can be reached at mramarao2008@gmail.com

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