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The PM's last stand

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh fought the food security Bill to the end. How long can the UPA fight itself? Samar Halarnkar writes.

columns Updated: Jun 19, 2012 18:11 IST
Samar Halarnkar
Samar Halarnkar
Hindustan Times
Samar Halarnkar,Rahul Gandhi,Congress

Sometime in November, Rahul Gandhi, Congress general secretary and heir to the Gandhi legacy, called for a debate at his heavily guarded colonial-era bungalow, tucked away in a secluded, shady New Delhi lane. The three people summoned were not a little bemused, wondering if they were going to participate in a real-life version of the fractious debates on news television.

The participants were economist Kirit Parikh, Chief Economic Adviser Kaushik Basu and National Advisory Council Member Harsh Mander. The three men were to debate the National Food Security Act (or Food Bill as it is popularly called), the costliest most ambitious legislation of the UPA's current tenure.

Parikh and Basu, advocates of fiscal caution, especially at a time of falling economic growth, lean towards the economic right. Mander, one of those who wrote the Food Bill and believes it is unconscionable that India has more hungry people than any other country, leans to the left. Versions of their seemingly irreconcilable positions have polarised the public debate over providing cheap food to India's poorest people.

Rahul wanted to put Parikh, Basu and Mander in one room and see if some of their differences could be reconciled. As it emerged, Parikh and Basu did not have major disagreements with Mander.

All three agreed it was a good idea to provide direct government assistance to the poorest, roughly about 700 million people, so they never went to bed hungry. The points of disagreement were minor. Parikh and Basu favoured direct cash transfers, while Mander wanted to use the existing public distribution system (PDS), about 500,000 'fair-price' shops, after reform (about 60% of foodgrain released through the PDS does not reach intended beneficiaries, according to the World Bank).

Rahul's little exercise revealed that putting everyone in one room can help - sometimes.

If only it was as easy to address the deepening ideological differences and turf wars that stall governance and threaten new ideas, including the Food Bill, at the highest levels of his party's government.

One of the biggest opponents of the Food Bill - though his government has cleared it and now awaits Parliament's approval - is Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who has been having a sometimes tense backroom tussle with his boss, UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi. On Singh's cue, many ministers, in recent cabinet meetings, have expressed disquiet over the Food Bill, which will cost India Rs 27,000 crore annually, though this will not kick in immediately or uniformly, in addition to the existing national food subsidy of Rs 70,000 crore. Extra money may need to be spent on an upgrade for and creation of farming and grain-distribution infrastructure (this is no bad thing).

According to those who have heard his views, Singh believes subsidies must not grow in inflationary times; if India helps markets and controls State expenditure, jobs will be created and everyone will prosper. Whatever the merits of this argument, it conflicts with those of Sonia and the NAC. It finally took a diktat from Sonia before Singh and his Cabinet acquiesced to the Food Bill.

Now, thanks to the party's inherent political dissonance the new law's implementation is already in jeopardy, thanks to a critical, unresolved detail: who is poor?

The government has not decided how it will select beneficiaries. Will it use the flawed, existing lists that leave out millions of rural and urban poor and include millions of not-so-poor? The NAC suggests identifying the urban poor using three types of vulnerabilities: residential (homeless people-obviously poor; slum dwellers-high chances of being poor); occupational (rickshaw pullers, construction labour, domestic help, beggars etc); and social (households with no able-bodied male aged 18 to 60). In rural areas, where it is harder to decide who is poor, it may make sense to follow socio-economic categories - single women, disabled people, old people, scheduled castes/tribes. This approach may include some undeserving people (such as rich widows), but it is less likely to exclude the poor.

I dwell on these details because they must be considered soon. It will require a hitherto unseen consensus within and attention from the UPA to actually deliver food to the poorest.

Choosing a method to select the poor has ramifications for a related issue, the Unique Identification Authority (UID), the world's largest programme to bestow biometric identities and use these to plug multi-billion-dollar leaks, reach out to the destitute and overhaul the delivery of subsidies to those excluded from the Indian dream. The UID is on the verge of stalling because chairman and former Infosys CEO Nandan Nilekani has run into opposition from the Planning Commission and the home ministry. Nilekani spends much of his time lobbying for his beleaguered programme, a political job that should be the responsibility of the government, which commissioned him to change the old ways.

With little political influence over his party, the prime minister is unwilling to intervene. Nilekani can only appeal to the Gandhis. Sonia, say those who have spoken to her, is unwilling to intervene unless absolutely necessary. Rahul will listen, but it is hard, even for him, to call the home minister to a let's-sort-it-out meeting.

The experts and professionals who deal with the house of the Government of India are like its plumbers and painters. The members of the household must decide what is to be done with the billions they intend to spend. There is just so much the plumbers and painters can do.

First Published: Dec 22, 2011 23:34 IST