It took an arduous journey of more than four years, but the National Food Security Bill is set to pass parliamentary scrutiny. The Lok Sabha has approved it already; the Rajya Sabha will also do so soon.
The food security Bill guarantees 67% of the Indian population — 75% in rural and 50% in urban areas — a certain amount of food grain at highly subsidised prices.
Congress president Sonia Gandhi, who has made food security the central piece of her political programme, counted four other rights that have already been enacted by the UPA government since it came to power in 2004.
Information, work and education are statutorily guaranteed; traditional dwellers have certain rights over forests. And now, food has become a right for the poorer sections.
The food security Bill has been criticised from diametrically opposite perspectives — some say it is too little and we need to do more; some say it is an unnecessary splurge and must be avoided.
The first group says any meaningful food security must account for nutritional requirements; the second one says this will hurt the already ailing economy more. In the limited sense, both are valid points.
But the truth — as all truths about India — is more complex. While the economic progress that India achieved in the last two decades has been enviable, our track record in terms of human development is rather pitiable.
India’s basic social indicators have worsened even as we recorded higher growth rates. Bangladesh, which grew much more slowly, has overtaken India in many fields such as life expectancy, child survival and fertility rates.
Only a healthy, educated and informed society can progress. Moreover, extreme levels of inequity could make our society dysfunctional and unstable. State intervention is essential to deal with these developmental challenges and the food security Bill is one such.
There is a possibility that the Congress will not gain much political benefit from food security, since the concentration of poor in India is in regions where the Congress hardly exists — such as Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and West Bengal. Moreover, the regional satraps in such places will package these schemes as their own, to the disadvantage of the Congress.
That said, policy-makers — and the Congress particularly — must take note of the fact that such welfare measures would not be possible if the economy is not robust. Finance minister P Chidambaram has said that the cost of food security will not result in fiscal deficits above the redline of 4.8% of the gross domestic product (GDP).
But if the current weaknesses persist, things may not be the same in the coming years. Therefore, there is a strong case for pitching for reforms and growth — it is the poor of India who needs them more. Welfare and growth must feed into each other rather than be pitched as contradictory demands.