The hostility to the UPA’s food security Bill from both its allies and the Opposition stems not from substantial objections to the draft law itself but from other political grouses
The decision to bring an ordinance to provide food security to 67 per cent of the country’s population was received with much hostility by the Opposition parties last week. The latter seemed surprised that the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) could muster the courage to do so in the face of overt opposition from leaders like Sharad Pawar of the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP). Sharad Pawar and Mulayam Singh Yadav, whose party supports the UPA from outside, have opposed the Bill as being anti-farmer, the implication being that the state, as a monopoly buyer on such a massive scale, would kill the private market for farmers as also small food grain exporters. A closer reading of numbers, however, will show that there is enough scope for the private/export market to coexist. Of the total annual food grain production of 200 million tones, the marketable surplus after self-consumption by small farmers is roughly 140 million tones. Further, the Commission for Agricultural Costs and Prices estimates a total requirement of 60 million tonnes to meet the commitments of the food security law. So, a full 80 million tonnes, over half of the marketable surplus, would be available for the private market.
Frankly, how can the food security Bill be termed anti-farmer when the government provides an assured price for their produce year after year? Predictability in price works like an insurance to farmers. In fact, there has been a long standing debate over providing a minimum support price for food items like vegetables so that farmers do not suffer from price volatility on account of localised swings in production, a bane of the Indian food market. This writer asked the spokesperson of the Samajwadi Party (SP), Kamal Farooqui, to explain the anti-farmer nature of the food security Bill: “My party will explain it when the matter is discussed in Parliament. Why doesn’t the UPA show the same haste in bringing the anti-Communal Violence Bill and other Sachar Committee resolutions in Parliament,” he asked. That, indeed, let the cat out of the bag. The SP, it appears, may tone down its opposition to the food security Bill if the UPA obliges it with critical legislations that would help it consolidate the Muslim constituency in Uttar Pradesh.
One gets the feeling that the opposition to the food bill among various regional parties, otherwise not so hostile to the Congress, stems more from a feeling that the UPA must do enough for present and future “secular allies” to consolidate their vote ahead of the coming general election, as it seems to be doing for itself through the food security Bill. However, the Bill has been on the UPA’s agenda from the beginning of its present tenure. The UPA has taken nearly two years to fine-tune the provisions after having it examined within the government, the National Advisory Council (NAC) and a Parliamentary Standing Committee.
The Left’s position on the food security Bill is more nuanced. It supports the legislation, but has argued that bringing an ordinance is undemocratic as it precludes the possibility of amendments to refine the legislation. The Congress’s position is that an ordinance assumes the character of a bill when brought to Parliament and goes through a process of discussions and amendments following which the bill becomes a law, as had happened with the ordinance on the anti-rape bill brought to Parliament some months ago. The shape of the final bill was different from the ordinance when it was brought to Parliament.
Historically, ordinances have probably provided a way of avoiding an immediate discussion in Parliament. But here the Congress seems to be playing a contrarian game, using the ordinance route to ensure that the main Opposition party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), is forced to attend the parliamentary debate on the food security legislation. For, there is a feeling that the BJP will again create conditions for the disruption of the monsoon session, that begins from July 26, even as it mounts a more strident, election-mode campaign against the UPA. Narendra Modi recently hinted at taking the anti-Congress campaign to a new high.
Beyond a point, the BJP cannot oppose the food security ordinance because its government in Chhattisgarh has implemented an even more ambitious food security legislation covering 90 per cent of the population. The BJP, too, seems to be raising merely technical issues and questioning the workability of the UPA’s proposed legislation such as how the Centre aims to fund such a programme when the economy is down and the government has embarked on fiscal consolidation to get growth back on track. Of course, these objections are somewhat flimsy because the government is already spending about Rs.95,000 crore on food subsidy, covering about 45 per cent of the population. It probably needs to spend another Rs.30,000 crore to cover 67 per cent of population if it manages a revamped delivery system with minimum leakages.
As in other welfare programmes, the UPA has embarked on a new framework of food delivery, without leakages. It has just completed a socio-economic and caste survey to identify deserving beneficiaries as also to exclude the better off segments, based on certain asset ownership patterns. A three-room pucca house, a two wheeler, and an income-tax paying member in the household, among others, would be taken together as a basis for excluding households. On a preliminary finding, about 35 per cent of households nationwide might be excluded. Politically, some problems could arise from this exclusion criteria as a section of Dalits and most backward castes could get captured by it for exclusion. For instance, relatively better off Dalits in certain western districts of Uttar Pradesh and Punjab who are benefiting from such programmes at present may get excluded later.
After the exclusion exercise, the socio-economic and caste survey will identify the poor beneficiaries. The poorest households will be identified on the basis of indicators such as the lack of a pucca house sans a sanitation facility or water source within the house. This promises to be a complicated exercise and members of the NAC such as Mr. N.C. Saxena, have spoken about the complexities involved in identifying the beneficiaries based on the socio-economic and caste survey. The UPA’s success will depend on how it hones its delivery system with minimum leakages. Shoddy implementation of the food security legislation could prove politically counterproductive at a later stage.
While it is true that no political party can oppose pro-poor legislation to provide food security to 67 per cent of the population, the Manmohan Singh government will have to ensure that all logistical details are in place before such an ambitious plan is rolled out. So far, the government has been tentative as regards the implementation of the law on the ground, with rumbles within the establishment about the asset-based survey to identify the beneficiaries.
Certain clauses in the legislation also show the defensive attitude of lawmakers. The Opposition has criticised a clause which says the food supply programme could be temporarily suspended in the event of, say, an unforeseen drought resulting in a sharp drop in food production. This is possible; in 2002-03, a severe drought caused a sharp drop in food grain production by over 35 million tonnes, as compared with the previous year.
The Agriculture Ministry has proposed a drought-proofing budget of over Rs.1,10,000 crore over five years to enhance irrigation facilities, storage assets and other measures to ensure against a sudden fall in food production. India is currently well placed, with a record 200 million tonnes in production in 2012-13. For the first time ever, over 20 million tonnes of rice, wheat and maize were exported. Stabilising food production over a period with better infrastructure investments is critical to sustaining the food security legislation.