Only three percent of Indians pay income tax; our tax-GDP ratio is among the lowest in the world. This must change. Our elites must realise that India’s poverty has damaging consequences for them, and that they can help decrease it. The food security bill, with all its limitations, will hopefully contribute to generating such awareness, says Praful Bidwai.
After vacillating for years over taking any pro-people measures, the United Progressive Alliance finally did something bold and worthy by having the National Food Security Bill passed in Parliament — a promise made in the UPA’s “first 100 days” agenda after its return to power in 2009.
The Bill won a resounding victory in the Lok Sabha, with a margin exceeding 100, because non-UPA parties including the Janata Dal-United, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and even the Shiv Sena felt they had no choice but to support it. It sailed through the Rajya Sabha too.
The stage was set by a rare, spirited speech by Congress president Sonia Gandhi, in which she described the legislation as India’s chance to ‘make history’ by abolishing hunger and malnutrition, and emphasised that India cannot afford not to have the law: “The question is not whether we can [raise the resources] or not. We have to do it.”
The NFSB has invested meaning, public purpose and a degree of legitimacy into the UPA’s otherwise corruption-ridden, shoddy and often appalling performance in government under an increasingly right-leaning leadership. This at once put the Bharatiya Janata Party on the defensive. Its leaders were reduced to opposing a measure that represents genuine social progress, and making thoughtless statements about the Bill being about ‘vote security’, not food security.
The BJP now has nothing to offer to the nation but obscurantist programmes like building a temple at Ayodhya, and parochial, and predatory pro-corporate agendas under Narendra Modi’s rabidly communal leadership.
The Bill is open to the criticism that it doesn’t go far enough. Instead of
universalising subsidised food provision, it confines it to two-thirds of the population, and truncates it further by limiting the food quota to five kilos of grain per capita per month instead of the 35 kg per family demanded by right-to-food campaigners. The per capita quota puts small households, such as those headed by widows and single women, at a disadvantage.
A universalised Public Distribution System, covering the entire population, has been proved to be more effective and less prone to leakage than one targeted at ‘below-poverty-line’ groups — in Kerala, Tamil Nadu and even poor, backward Chhattisgarh. The relatively well-off won’t stand in queues at ration shops; they select themselves out of a universal PDS.
Besides, a large proportion even of those officially defined as poor don’t possess BPL ration cards. The ratio can be as high as 40 percent in some highly deprived states. The latest National Sample Survey reveals that 51 percent of rural people possessing less than one-hundredth of a hectare of land have no ration cards of any kind; less than 23 percent have BPL cards.
The problem of identifying the poor remains unresolved. Nevertheless, the broader coverage proposed under the NFSB — and the simple, attractive formula of rice at Rs 3 per kg, wheat at Rs 2, and coarse grains at Re 1 — marks a definite improvement over the current situation. It creates a right or entitlement for the poor, which can go some way in reducing acute hunger.
However, right-wing commentators, including neo-liberal economists, credit-rating agencies, multinational and Indian big business, and writers/anchors in the media, have vitriolically attacked the NFSB as an instance of reckless “populism”.
Some claim it will do to little to relieve malnutrition among Indian children, almost one-half of whom suffer from it. Yet others contend that the poor don’t want or deserve subsidies; they aspire to work, earn more and eat better.
And almost all of them say the NFSB will entail excessive wasteful
expenditure of Rs 1.25 lakh crores. This will aggravate India’s growing fiscal crisis and further depress already faltering GDP growth, now down to four-five percent. Eventually, this will work against the poor. Besides, if investment and growth are to be revived, India can’t spend so much on food security.