All efforts to bridge the gap between government estimates and the Sonia Gandhi-led National Advisory Council over the Food Security Act are coming up against a central concern posed by the Congress chief: How can the selection criteria ensure the poor and deserving don’t get left out? NAC members who interact with the government point out that Sonia repeatedly underlines her personal experience over the years during visits to deprived areas where she has found that the poor are simply not counted in any state survey and are denied any benefits.
The Congress chief’s poser that the inability of the poor, particularly tribals and dalits, to access below poverty line cards needed to tap official welfare schemes will defeat the very objective of a law providing 35 kg food grain a month to the widest set of recipients is proving tough to answer. Here, even automatic inclusion parameters may not mean the severely disadvantaged groups will be assured a minimum level of food security, said sources familiar with the Congress supremo’s thinking.
Sonia is keen the proposed law be effective in addressing needs of those who live on the brink and need state support and her conviction that exclusion criteria are applied in a bureaucratic manner and end up leaving the needy out in the cold tilts the scale towards universal eligibility which the government continues to baulk at. Several permutations have been considered including limiting universal public distribution system to districts with chronic poverty or looking for the right urban-rural ratios.
But while some campaigners argue that government’s fears of having to maintain large stocks are misplaced as universal PDS will be accessed only by those who need it, the government is not quite convinced. The government feels that legal provisions stating population percentages to be catered for will mean it has to provide for adequate food grain for all intended beneficiaries. A law is mandatory and the optimum values have to be factored in.
The tussle over selection of beneficiaries has seen populist politics pushing for dilution of criteria like pucca houses or income levels. But the Congress president’s core concern that expanding the net still does not necessarily mean that obvious beneficiaries are being catered for being tossed up and down the table in both formal and informal consultations.
Food security act pledge in Prez’s address
A national food security act to guarantee 25 kg of rice or wheat a month to BPL families, consolidation of rural employment and Bharat Nirman, a focus on terrorism and India’s neighbourhood, initiatives for urban employment and a promise to battle recessionary trends are likely to be part of President’s address to Parliament.
The first meeting of the Union Cabinet after the conclusion of government-formation, scheduled for Saturday morning, may consider President Pratibha Patil’s speech to the joint sitting of both Houses of Parliament. The speech, to be delivered on June 4, has been extensively worked on by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.
The President’s address is expected to highlight areas outlined by the PM like infrastructure and security. High on the government’s agenda are plans for a National Counter Terrorism Centre, modernisation of police forces through training and technology and diversified recruitment.
It will also speak of pushing programmes like highways that have languished. Some legislations like the Unorganised workers’ social security bill and Right to Education Bill, National Rehabilitation and Resettlement Bill, expansion of the Rashtriya Swathya Bima Yojana and the National Child Labour Project, integrated development of minority concentration districts and approval of a National Tribal Policy are initiatives the government would like to speeden up.
With economy and job losses very much a concern, the address will look to stress development of social and physical infrastructure along with specific plans like an urban employment safety net. The government will work on a comprehensive overhaul of public healthcare, restructuring Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA), strengthening implementation of 11th and 12th plan power projects and attention on employment-generating small sector enterprises.
The government is planning major efforts to decrease infant and mother mortality rates, bring about accountability in Primary Health Centres, initiate a household survey of the National Rural Healthcare Mission, besides approving rigorous oversight in ensuring dispensation of medicines before expiry dates. In the education sector, the main focus is likely to be on quality education by restructuring SSA, seen as a success story, and on guaranteeing education for all. The government is expected to restructure SSA into a Mission for Quality Elementary Education to deal effectively with teacher absenteeism and drop out rates.
The government has set up a target of adding 78,577 Mw of power generation capacity in the current 11th five year plan which has been raised to 1 lakh MW during the 12th five year plan. A major thrust on the micro small and medium enterprises (MSME) sector — hit badly by the global economic slowdown — to protect workers and artisans can be expected.
Government may insist on use of handlooms and handicrafts in decor for government offices as well as for venues for the forthcoming At the start of UPA’s first term in office, the President’s address had reflected the commitments made in the common minimum programme and this time around, Congress’s manifesto is expected to be “foundation” of the speech. A nation-wide skill development programme and scholarship schemes for needy students and those from the minority communities are on the government’s check list.
The electoral success in attracting minority votes could see the President refer to Congress’s poll promise of taking its minority reservation models in states like Andhra Pradesh, to the national level. The government feels that it has been the recipient of a rural feel-good with the agrarian economy benefitting from higher MPS, NREGA and the loan waiver. With an eye to consolidating its image as pro-farmer, the government is expected to work towards providing interest relief to all farmers who repay bank loans on schedule. The loan waiver has reached 3.68 crore families.
In the power sector, operationalisation of the National Electricity Fund, infrastructure implementation in the north-east, faster implementation of flagship programmes and monitoring through third parties and capacity building are on the table. Sanghatana says Food Security Act will ruin farmers
The Shetkari Sanghatana has come out strongly against the proposed Food Security Act of the UPA government terming it as anti-farmer and a measure that would fuel inflation, derail country’s economy and produce an army of lazy people who get food almost for free without need to work. “The proposed law is aimed at only garnering votes in 2014 elections by the ruling parties at the Centre. Providing subsidized food to 67% of country’s population or
81 crore people would cost the country Rs1,25,000 crore. It would have far-reaching implications on productivity and economy of the country and destroy dignity of labour,” said Ram Neole, spokesman of the Sanghatana.
“Providing cheap foodgrains to the disabled, needy people can be seen as a noble gesture of a caring government in a welfare state. But the Food Security ordinance brought in a haste without waiting for a parliamentary clearance to cover an overwhelming majority of population is a cheap political gimmick,” said Neole. His Shetkari Sanghatana led by Sharad Joshi favoured free market economy with farmers getting adequate rates for their produce.
“The Food Act would mean that farmers producing paddy, wheat and coarse grains like jowar would never get the right price as the government that controls pricing and procurement would never allow a hike so as to contain the cost of the scheme,” explained Neole. Under the new law those demanding the foodgrains would be given rice for Rs3, wheat for Rs2 and jowar for Rs1 a kg.
“Of course, when faced with huge budgetary deficit that is bound to happen, the government would increase taxes on traders and salaried classes and businessmen and professionals burdening them further,” Neole apprehended. “All this will lead to loss of income for farmers, more taxes and non-availability of labour force for productive work at farms and factories,” he feared.
Contradicting this viewpoint, Vidarbha Jan Andolan Samiti president Kishore Tiwari has jumped in support of the law. In a statement here, he said: “Only those ignorant of hunger and deprivation that kills lakhs of people in villages every year would oppose the law.”
Such political parties and people would be taught a lesson in 2014 elections for opposing a pro-poor policy,” said Tiwari. “The poor have a right to food and the proposed law is the first step to acknowledge it,” he added. Food subsidy bill may touch Rs 75K cr on back of Food Security Act The proposed Food Security Act may not put additional burden on the government in the current fiscal year as the government can find the resources to fund the plan from the spending outlined for 2011-12, finance ministry officials said. However, the food subsidy bill could soar to as much as Rs 75,000 crore from the estimated Rs 60,572.98 crore for the 2011-12 fiscal year.
Finance ministry officials said the government will provide the money for funding this exercise. The ministry has already asked various departments to tighten their belts and not to undertake any new spending commitments as it sticks to its plan of meeting the fiscal deficit target of 4.6% of gross domestic product. The government is keen to stick to its deficit target as it has embarked on a drive to mend public finances.
Earlier, the government had said it was ready to provide for any additional fuel subsidy as result of the spike in global crude oil prices and is confident of finding the resources from within the budget for the 2011-12 financial year. The government has an ambitious share sale programme in state run companies and plans to raise Rs 40,000 crore. Despite volatile stock market and global economic conditions, finance ministry officials are confident of achieving the target. It is also banking on other non-tax revenues to help it keep within it spending limits despite pressure points on the subsidy front.
Sources said the ministry of food and consumer affairs was staring at a requirement of over 70 million tonnes of foodgrain to support the food security act. Given the trends in procurement and the need to maintain buffer stocks, it could pose a problem for the government and force it to import from the international market. Any plans to impose large quantities of grains could push up prices in the global market and widen the government’s subsidy burden.
Some analysts say the food subsidy could touch Rs 1 lakh crore in two years. It remains to be seen how the government balances the demand for the food security act against the backdrop of a tight fiscal situation. Analysts say importing costly food to run the Food Security Act could blow a hole in public finances and reverse the trend in fiscal consolidation.
Congress hopes to get food bill passed
Conscious that the window to secure passage of the food security bill is narrowing as the scheduled end of the monsoon session of parliament nears, the Congress on Sunday expressed the hope that the landmark measure will get approved during the coming week. “We hope the food bill will be passed in parliament on Monday or Tuesday,” Congress spokesperson PC Chacko told IANS. The ongoing monsoon session of parliament is scheduled to end on August 30.
Though the lower house functioned on Saturday, in lieu of a holiday last week, the food bill was not listed as opposition parties wanted it to be debated on Monday. “The food bill will be taken up on Monday,” Parliamentary Affairs Minister Kamal Nath had told reporters on Friday. If it gets passed in the lower house on Monday, the bill can be taken up in the Rajya Sabha on Tuesday.
Politics scuttled Congress managers’ plans to get it passed for the entire week Aug 19-24 as the opposition did not let the house run over the issues of missing coal-block allocation files, statehood for Telangana and high prices of food items. The managers hope that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s statement in the Rajya Sabha on Monday would end the controversy over missing coal-block files.
The speaker’s suspension on Friday of 12 anti-Telangana members, who had been disrupting the lower house, has sought to address the issue of endorsement for a new state. The Lok Sabha functioned Saturday for the first time since the session began Aug 5 and passed three bills – Governors (Emoluments, Allowances and Privileges) Amendment Bill, 2012, The Constitution (Scheduled Castes) Order (Amendment) Bill, 2012 and Constitution (Scheduled Tribes) Order (Second Amendment) Bill, 2012.