The disintegration of the BJP-led NDA and the recent changes in the Union Cabinet are indicative of a political churning that has been set in motion as the country moves into election mode. It is only natural, under these circumstances that the incumbent government engages in a flurry of populist announcements designed to create an illusion of providing some relief to the people. Among these is the National Food Security Bill. The government announced that it will begin discussions this week with political parties eliciting their support for convening a special session of Parliament for the passage of this Bill.
Readers will recollect that when the UPA 2 government assumed office, the then President Pratibha Patil in her address to the Joint Session of Parliament outlined various measures that the government would implement in the first 100 days. Among others, this list prominently featured the food security Bill.
Nearly 1,500 days have passed since. The government has not managed to bring the Bill for the consideration and adoption in Parliament. There was nobody who stopped the government from doing so. Thus, the government has nobody to blame but itself for not fulfilling its own promise to the people.
The Constitution of India does not provide for any special session of Parliament. The Constitution simply states in Article 85 (1): “The President shall from time to time summon each House of Parliament to meet at such time and place as he thinks fit, but six months shall not intervene between its last sitting in one session and the date appointed for its first sitting in the next session.” Therefore, upon the advice of the Union Cabinet, the president may summon Parliament, in addition to the three sessions — the Budget, the Monsoon and the Winter — established by tradition. But since the Monsoon session usually convenes in July, any session prior to that makes little sense now.
By making this issue of convening a special session of Parliament, an agenda for media speculation, the UPA 2 government seems to be trying to derive some political capital by seeking to impress the people about its commitment to grant food security. On the contrary, what must be asked of the government is why it delayed enacting a legislation on this score, despite its own assurances, for more than four years.
It is clear that it is only after a considerable amount of internal wrangling that the UPA 2 has finally come forward with the proposal of providing 25 kg of rice at R3 per kg, of wheat at R2 per kg and millets at R1 per kg. It proposes to cover 67% of the Indian families — 75% in rural India and 50% in urban India. This is simply inadequate to eliminate hunger and malnutrition from our country. A meaningful food security is only possible when all families in the country — at least 90% — are provided 35 kg of foodgrains at prices not exceeding R2 per kg. We have enough stock of foodgrains and resources to ensure this. Any measure that is short of this cannot provide comprehensive food security to our people.
Further, any meaningful food security for the people can be ensured only if the Public Distribution System (PDS) is universalised and comprehensively covers the country’s population. Instead of doing this, the government has come up with its direct cash transfer scheme as an alternative for distribution of essential commodities at fair prices through ration shops. If this is implemented, then the PDS itself would be rendered superfluous. People will now be told to buy their requirements from the open market against the cash that has been delivered to them.
Further, as inflation grows, the monies transferred to the people will increasingly command a lesser value in the market. The net result would be that people will not receive what is required to guarantee a minimum level of food security. Therefore, in the final analysis, vast majority of the people, unable to meet their needs, would slide into greater misery.
The dismantling of the PDS will have another serious consequence. At the moment, foodgrains are procured by the government at a stipulated minimum support price from farmers. This stock of foodgrains is then distributed through ration shops at specified prices. With the cash transfer, the government will no longer need to procure foodgrains. Thus, it will escape from its responsibility of providing a remunerative price to farmers, thus depriving farmers any economic security, however weak it may be at the moment. This will further aggravate the current agrarian distress and farmer suicides.
Through such a mechanism, the government will continuously be reducing, if not eliminating, its already meagre subsidies to keep people away from hunger and misery. At the same time, it can also be relieved of its subsidies to provide a minimum support price to farmers.
In other words, what the government is doing is hoodwinking the people. Neither the food security nor the cash transfer provides much-needed relief for the people. On the contrary, over a period of time, such cash transfers will increasingly become inadequate, due to rising prices, to meet the nutritional requirements of the family.
In the final analysis, therefore, what is required is not a special session of Parliament, what is required is a special resolve by the government to provide genuine food security to the people. The required adequate allocations must be made by the government to ensure the universalisation of the PDS through which the people are provided the wherewithal to first survive and then to improve their livelihood status.
Sitaram Yechury is CPI(M) Politburo member and Rajya Sabha MP
The views expressed by the author are personal