In the upcoming assembly elections in five states, a bellwether for the national polls in 2014, the Congress’s best bet — social-welfare programmes pioneered by its government at the Centre — will be put to test by a raft of matching steps initiated by Opposition-ruled states.
Hemmed in by controversies, it makes sense for the Congress to promote its flagship national food security law which promises two-thirds of Indians a legal right to cheap food. Top Congress leaders recently visited various state capitals to prep regional leaders on how to publicise the UPA’s welfare agenda.
The anti-hunger legislation, a cornerstone of Congress chief Sonia Gandhi’s social agenda, is the second of two large entitlement-based social programmes.
The first one, a right-to-employment scheme called MGNREGA, is said to have helped the ruling UPA government win a second term. This success, and later the food security legislation, eventually set off a race to roll out competing welfare handouts, which make for a good election campaign.
For instance, the BJP government in poll-bound Chhattisgarh came up with its own version of a food security law in 2012, a year before the UPA did.
However, the BJP has cited higher per capita food entitlements and wider universal coverage in their law than the Congress’s version.
The Congress-led UPA government’s food security law doesn’t apply to 33% of the total population as the official poverty headcount at the national level is roughly 22% and universal coverage isn’t affordable. However, explanations don’t work in a country where subsidies are taken for granted by most.
Pros and cons
The Congress will also be hobbled by a largely botched start to its “direct benefits transfer” scheme — a national programme that seeks to replace subsidies in kind, such as food and cooking fuel, with cash. Cash transfers are unsuccessful in the country where 40% of people still don’t have access to basic banking facilities.
Madhya Pradesh chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan has sharply reduced rates of cheap wheat and rice for the poor by increasing the state’s share of subsidy, so that they are priced even lower than what the national food security law offers.
As the Centre would still be paying a major portion of the food subsidy bill in the BJP-ruled state, the Congress has accused MP of trying to appropriate its landmark programme. “We spend a subsidy of `17 for every kilogram on rice, while the state government will add `1. Yet, they want to take the credit,” Congress leader Digvijaya Singh said.
Although India’s fiscal deficit is widening alarmingly, welfare spending isn’t limited just to food. To encourage girls to attend school, Chhattisgarh has been distributing bicycles to girls since 2005, and laptops from February this year. Madhya Pradesh also distributes cycles among girl students.
Many states are increasing the doles under centrally-funded programmes, which then allow them to take ownership of the benefits. Under the MGNREGA, the Centre provides up to 100 days’ work a year at the minimum wage. Chhattisgarh has extended that to 150 days, pumping in additional funds.
Rajasthan is also banking on its welfare agenda to beat anti-incumbency. This includes a healthcare scheme that offers free treatment and payment of Rs 2,100 to couples with new-born girls.
(With inputs from Ashutosh Shukla, Ejaz Kaiser and P Srinivasan)