THAT INDIA SHOULD HAVE TO VIRTUALLY GIVE FREE FOOD TO A HUGE CHUNK OF ITS POPULATION 66 YEARS AFTER INDEPENDENCE REFLECTS POORLY ON ITS ECONOMIC PLANNING, SAYS PATRICIA MUKHIM
There is a mad craze in this country to define and redefine poverty. In some states, the number of those living at subsistence levels is hugely inflated. Without the correct figures how will the UPA-2 roll out its most ambitious vote-getting scheme through the Food Security Act/Ordinance? Media punters have already started second guessing the results of the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. Since the battle for the gaddi in Delhi has started in right earnest, the media feels (as it always does) that it might be able to gauge voter behaviour so that each channel can then claim how it got the closest to the truth in its predictions.
   However, the media is not the only entity that&’s overly anxious about the 2014 electoral outcomes. Individuals and groups are non-plussed about what will happen in 2014. There is a huge churning at the moment. Will India go the rightist way this time because the party/parties that profess a centrist approach (although what that means is another dilemma) do not seem to understand what that means? Many of them just pander to religious and casteist sentiments. But the voting public is losing sleep over the issue and as so much depends on the kind of leadership that will emerge after next year&’s battle royale.
Politicians are themselves in a dilemma. Shatrugan Sinha, known to be the Bollywood poster boy of the BJP, has suddenly decided that Bihar is bigger than his parent party. He blurted out on national television that Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar would be a better bet as Prime Minister than the audacious Narendra Modi, who appears to believe in himself more than many senior leaders of his party do in him. But that is quite another story. And the narrative is panning out across the nation. It would be interesting to watch how Modi finally deals his cards and if he can carry the entire BJP entourage with him or if some like Shatrugan Sinha would jump off Modi&’s bandwagon, more out of opportunism than any great love for the masses of this country.
The Congress leading the UPA-2 believes it can win the rural voters and the poor by rolling out the National Food Security Act soon. According to government estimates, the total annual foodgrains requirement would be 61.23 million tonnes and the corresponding estimated food subsidy for the Bill at 2013-14 costs is about Rs 124,724 crore. The UPA aims to push the Bill through the Ordinance route for fear of it being stalled by some nitwit political group. On the face of it,  the Bill is a socio-economic tool to tackle hunger and malnutrition.
But there are few takers for this professed altruism. The BJP and Left parties call it a political gimmick but even they find it hard to deny privately that it will be the biggest vote-catching gimmick. It appeals to those who stand to gain from it the most — namely the poor who, at this stage, believe it is a God-send. Only the foolhardy would dare shoot down a pro-poor programme at this juncture. Some economists have dubbed the FSA an absurd idea that takes patronage democracy to a bizarre level. That this country should have to virtually give free food to a huge chunk of its population, 66 years after Independence, reflects poorly on its economic planning.
In a situation where the country&’s GDP is floundering and the economy is hamstrung by political opportunism, no one, not even the shrewd Union finance minister, really knows where the money for this populist scheme will come from. The proponents of the scheme, Aruna Roy and her cohort, developmental economist Jean Dreze, have not spelt out how this Bill will be bankrolled and by whom. Everyone is happy that their suggestion has been taken on board by no less a person than  Congress diva Sonia Gandhi, who all Congressmen/women bow in deference to.
The Bill envisages that state governments would legally undertake to ensure the food and nutritional security of at least two-thirds of the India&’s population (1.2 billion), allowing them to receive an adequate quantity of foodgrains at affordable prices. It would target the poorest of the poor, women and children. Wherever and whenever food is not supplied, people will get a food security allowance. The Act provides for a strong grievance redressal mechanism and penalty for non-compliance by a public servant or authority. Up to 75 per cent of the rural population and 50 per cent of the urban population will have uniform entitlement of five kilograms of foodgrains per month at highly subsidised prices of three, two and one rupee per kilogram for rice, wheat and coarse grains, respectively.
Under the new scheme, the states will frame their own criteria or use social economic and caste/tribe census data. Political observers feel there will be a huge fights over the numbers of beneficiaries between the states and the Centre. But in a country where the maternal mortality rate, and women and child malnutrition is equivalent to that of sub-Saharan Africa and India falling far short of achieving the Millennium Development Goals, by 2015 this scheme seems like a life-saver. 
States like Arunachal Pradesh and Mizoram have expressed their inability to fund the Food Security Programme Scheme. In such cases the Centre would provide funds to states in case of a short supply of foodgrains from the Central pool. If foodgrains are not supplied to the beneficiaries, the states concerned  would have  to provide food security allowance as may be prescribed by the Centre.
The latter will also provide assistance to the states towards the cost of intra-state transportation, handling of foodgrains and margins to fair price shop dealers, according to norms yet to be chalked out so as to ensure timely transportation and efficient handling of foodgrains. The scheme is rather ambitious and envisages reforms in the public distribution system through doorstep delivery of foodgrains, application of  Information and Communication Technology  tools, computerisation and leveraging “Aadhaar” for unique identification of beneficiaries for effective implementation of the Food Security Act. Some of these reforms are already underway. What is interesting is the gender aspect of the scheme since the eldest female member of the family or women aged 18 years and above would be considered heads of households for the issuance of ration cards. Only if there is no female members will a male be accepted as head of the family. What happens to states where the Aadhaar Scheme is yet to take off?
Apparently social audits and vigilance committees would be set up to ensure transparency and accountability. In a sense, this scheme is like the  Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, where social audits have unearthed corruption. Like all government schemes, there is bound to be corruption in the implementation of this one too, but checks and balances in the form of social auditing and penalties on public servants for failing to comply with the rules of the scheme might help.
Now whether the Food Security Act  will be the game-changer for the Congress  and whether the UPA will return to power on account of this roll-out would be difficult to assess at this juncture. By the time the states implement the Act and the 2014 elections happen,  there would not be enough time for assessing the efficacy of the scheme. The mass of rural voters would be so taken up by the Act that they might just elect the Congress if only to ensure that the scheme continues. Interestingly, the Food Security Act seems to have the blessings of Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen. For now, it seems the Congress is on another high.

The writer is editor, The Shillong Times, and can be contacted at [email protected]