The Congress is expected to roll out its big-ticket food security scheme in some states ruled by it on August 20, the birthday of the late Rajiv Gandhi.
Though the party officially maintained the scheme would be launched “very soon”, Delhi — where assembly elections are due later this year — and Haryana have indicated willingness to implement it from that date.
“The two states specified the dates today. The rest of the chief ministers stated they too would go for speedy implementation,” communication department head Ajay Maken said after a high-level Congress meeting on Saturday.
The law — which guarantees monthly food handouts to 67% of India’s population at a fraction of the market price — has been billed a “game changer” and the Congress hopes to reap rich dividends from it in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, just as it did with the loan waiver and rural job schemes in 2009.
However, Maken said: “Please don't link it to polls. It is a game changer because it will empower 820 million Indians with a legal right to food and serve as a bulwark in the fight against malnutrition and deprivation.”
At the meeting, Sonia Gandhi asked party-ruled states to implement in “letter and spirit” the food security ordinance that was promulgated last week so “nobody sleeps hungry”.
Some worries were voiced. A few leaders pointed out that as long as the public distribution system was not set right, the food security scheme would not succeed. The PM shared this concern but said it would be streamlined. There was also a demand to make the Essential Commodities Act more stringent to deter defaulters.
Regarded as the Congress chief’s pet project, the welfare scheme was part of the party’s 2009 poll manifesto and has been more than four years in the making. At nearly R1.25 lakh crore a year, the scheme will raise spending on food aid by nearly a third.
The annual food subsidy burden could rise to an estimated 1-1.2% of the GDP from the current 0.8%.
Rice, wheat or millets will be given at R3, R2 and R1 a kg a month. Although the law comes into immediate effect, ‘clause 10’ of the ordinance gives states six months “lead time” to identify eligible recipients.
Saturday’s meeting was attended by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi, party chief ministers barring flood-ravaged Uttarakhand’s Vijay Bahuguna, general secretaries, core group members and food minister KV Thomas.