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Cooking up a fiasco?

Bulk of crisis over food security bill lies within the government itself

delhi Updated: Jun 08, 2013 00:18 IST
Zia Haq

The proposed food security bill, the centrepiece of Congress chief Sonia Gandhi's social welfare agenda, has been on a political roller-coaster from the word go.

Its fate hangs precariously on the government's shoulders. But the hurdles, it turns out, lie equally within the ruling UPA coalition's own quarters.

Agriculture minister Sharad Pawar, the leader of the NCP, the Congress' largest ally, on Friday said he did not favour an ordinance to implement the provisions of the proposed food law.

Virtually echoing the Opposition's stand, Pawar called for a Parliament debate - something the government isn't confident about. An ordinance allows laws to be enacted when Parliament is not in session.

The government could not put the bill to vote due to a largely disrupted budget session of Parliament and there's no certainty that the coming monsoon session would be less troublesome.

The bill, promised by the Congress when it went to the polls in 2009, seeks to give two-thirds of Indians a legal right to cheap food.

The mere mention of cheap food could send a cheer among 200 million food-insecure Indians. But it could also make food aid India's biggest national subsidy expenditure.

A senior bureaucrat, requesting anonymity, told HT the government lost a good deal of time getting its act together. Even during the budget session, no meeting was held to fix a strategy on bringing the bill for discussion.

"It was nobody's child. Now, push has come to shove," he said.

Nobel laureate Amartya Sen, in a press conference in Delhi on May 7, had questioned the "opportunity cost" of delaying the food bill "in terms of the number of children left malnourished or dead due to lack of access to food".

For three years, the government and the National Advisory Council, the panel which is headed by Sonia Gandhi and steers the ruling coalition's welfare agenda, went back and forth on the bill.

Twice the draft bill was shot down when it came close to being adopted. In April 2010, when the draft was brought before the cabinet, it was rejected over differences on entitlements and the beneficiaries, mainly the poverty headcount.

In October and November that year, Gandhi wrote to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, seeking a socio-economic survey by the registrar general to identify the poor, arguing that India's poverty figures could be dodgy and grossly underestimated.

She supported a proposal to club the survey with a planned caste census. But the home ministry had reservations and had its way.

A cautious Prime Minister wanted the financial implications of the populist bill weighed carefully, a task he handed to his economic advisory council.

The political rumour is that few in the government were as passionate about the food bill as the Congress chief.

At Rs 1.31 lakh crore, according to current projections, the food bill will cost nearly twice as much as the spending on fertilisers and 35% higher than the oil subsidy.

All this has looked like a financial monster to conservative economists.

Implemented well, the food law can tackle hunger and win votes for a ruling coalition that has nearly frittered away its mandate. But now the government doesn't quite know how to get it off its chest.