The government has come good on its promise to put in place a food security architecture but the manner in which it has pushed through the historic measure, which gives roughly 67 per cent of the population a legal right over cheap food grains, suggests it was done with an eye on the 2014 general election. The ordinance route is an extraordinary move, considered legitimate only in situations of urgency. In this case, there was no such contingency, and indeed, the National Food Security Bill, which has already been tabled in the Lok Sabha, was a commitment the United Progressive Alliance government made in its 2009 manifesto. Of course, the Congress has its own justification for rushing with the ordinance, with the party’s new communication chief Ajay Maken calling it a “life saver, life changer for many people.” In reality, the government was unsure of being able to pass the Bill in the monsoon session of Parliament and with the next round of Assembly elections looming large, it did not want a situation where it would be trapped by the Model Code of Conduct and other such restrictions. In the event the Bill falls through in Parliament, party and government will undoubtedly be able to claim that while they were sincere in wanting to reach food to the poorest of the poor, they were defeated in this mission by an insensitive Opposition.
The draft National Food Security Bill is a compromise between what Congress president Sonia Gandhi wanted and what the Manmohan Singh government was willing to deliver. Public Distribution System reforms and revitalisation of the agriculture sector are pre-requisites for a rights-based food delivery system, but the government is still to unveil a road map for this. The weakest link in the chain is the lack of clarity on the criteria for identification of the beneficiaries. The intention is to make that choice based on the results of the Socio-Economic and Caste Census, expected to be available by October. There is also serious concern over the Bill’s failure to offer universal coverage in a country grappling with hunger and malnutrition. A partial scheme such as this one will have to deal with the pitfalls in the often subjective identification of target groups. For the law to take off in right earnest, the state apparatus will first have to be readied to take on the challenge. Given the reported 40 per cent diversion of foodgrains from the PDS into the open market, systems need to be strictly monitored to plug leakages, wastages and diversions. To make the scheme effective on the ground it is imperative to take on board the gram sabhas, farmers and consumers. Putting the cart before the horse will only sacrifice a well-intentioned programme.