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Game-changer or vote-catcher?

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The Food Security Bill passed by the Lok Sabha Monday night may or may not prove to be a game-changer for the ruling coalition but a section of the...

The Food Security Bill passed by the Lok Sabha Monday night may or may not prove to be a game-changer for the ruling coalition but a section of the Opposition views it as a “vote-securing Bill’; but for 67% of India’s poor the measure, if implemented with the required degree of transparency and commitment, can easily prove to be a life-changer. Of course, reservations about the utility of the measure remain, and some of them are quite valid. But, overall, it is a long overdue measure even though its timing is suspect.

That the Centre should have thought of introducing it with parliamentary elections round the corner is apt to be interpreted as a tactical move to convince the poor that, however belatedly, their concerns are being addressed. Some Opposition parties, including those believed to be close to the ruling coalition, termed it a “poll gimmick” in the Lok Sabha; some others argued that there was nothing “universal” about the scheme because it targeted only some sections of the poor. The former charge may well be correct, but is there anything in the Constitution that prohibits initiation of a welfare measure on the eve of elections? Therefore, the Opposition would have been justified in criticizing the timing of the introduction of the Bill but not its validity.

Nobody denies that the economy is in a mess that shows no signs of ending. It is no less true that huge stocks of food grains have reportedly been lost because of improper and inadequate storage facilities. Even so, equitable distribution of available food grains stocks among the poor cannot be opposed, elections or no elections. Over years the country has witnessed several cases of starvation deaths, especially in villages. If food grains can somehow be reached to such multitudes, it would probably be the first tangible step India will have taken towards feeding the poor.

It is indeed a national disgrace that 66 years after Independence more than 37% of the population should not be assured of even one square meal a day. Another question that has been asked is if there are enough food grains in the country to go round. Even if there are not, at one time or another, the country must be self-reliant in food grains. For instance, when Indira Gandhi as Prime Minister decided one day to stop PL-480 imports of wheat from the USA, India’s granaries are not exactly overflowing. Yes, the Green Revolution had helped the country’s food stock considerably; yet many in our country had wondered if the stoppage of those imports was a wise decision. Significantly, after that seemingly petulant action Indians did not go hungry. They learnt to make do with the available food grain stocks.
By the same token, the Food Security Bill, though not easy to implement nationwide with due attention to transparency, is the need of the hour, and there is evidence to suggest that it can be implemented. For instance, the public distribution system (PDS) that is to be the base of the food security measure is being implemented very well, for instance, in Chhattisgarh. That, however, is not to deny that the CAG report has talked of flaws in the implementation of the PDS, but no progress is possible without trial and error.
If Authority has drawn the right lessons from cases of food grains meant for distribution under the PDS being sold in “black market”, either by middlemen or by the beneficiaries themselves, the food security measure can yet be a success. Yes, finding huge resources for implementation of the scheme is going to pose a big hurdle, but that should not be beyond the ingenuity of the Government. In sum, expression of cynicism even before the launch of the scheme shows a mindset that is not yet ready to meet challenges as they arise.
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