The wrong way to food security

The bill is the UPA’s attempt to camouflage poor performance with propaganda

Published: August 12, 2013 3:44:48 am

The bill is the UPA’s attempt to camouflage poor performance with propaganda

Let no one misunderstand this,and I state this at the very outset. The Bharatiya Janata Party is not opposed to a food security law. Indeed,the BJP will support the bill in Parliament,with some amendments,when it comes up for discussion. But we are concerned about the manner in which the law is going to be implemented. We also do not mind if the Congress believes that it is a political game changer that will help it navigate the electoral battle in 2014,or whenever elections are held.

We must appreciate that the current situation of high food prices,huge stocks of foodgrains,the sight of tonnes of foodgrains rotting in the open and the poor being deprived of two square meals is a complex amalgam of constant policy failures for decades. Even while paying lip service to the farmer and the consumer in the name of the much-harassed aam aadmi,the UPA government has failed to come up with a coherent food and farm policy that protects the people’s interests. The result has been that farmers do not get remunerative prices for their produce and at the same time,consumers pay exorbitant prices for their daily needs. Above all,there is the endemic problem of reducing any debate into an NDA vs UPA contest. Now let’s get real. Ten years is a long time,and the UPA masters should muster the courage to own up to their track record instead of taking shelter behind the statistics of the NDA period.

It is the primary responsibility of the state to ensure that the elementary needs of its people — food,shelter and health — are fulfilled. Towards this end,a law that makes it a right for the people to have access to foodgrains is welcome. However,there are issues to be considered and resolved.

As someone engaged in public policy and keen to promote the politics of development,I am still not able to fathom the reason behind the UPA’s refusal to even take a look at the Chhattisgarh model of food security. It has been lauded by independent experts and has worked well for several years now. Among its strong features are: sensible use of technology,like full computerisation of PDS and the use of GPS devices for tracking the movement of vehicles carrying grains; greater transparency through public scrutiny of all records; and a higher level of accountability,with local bodies such as gram panchayats having precedence in running PDS outlets.

But then the UPA does not believe in a proven format of good governance. It wants to introduce a public welfare measure with an eye on EVM machines. My limited concern is,should we play politics with the hunger of the poor? Should we also look at our votes when we provide food to the people? Must we always play politics?

When you play politics,your real intent is laid bare before the people. This bill is a clear indication that the UPA is only interested in getting propaganda mileage on food security,and is not really committed to the task of ridding the country of hunger.

Let us look at this aspect. The manner in which the targeted beneficiaries are chosen exposes the Manmohan Singh-Sonia Gandhi team’s game. This is perhaps the first law under which the number of beneficiaries to be covered in each state has been decided,instead of creating eligibility criteria. The guidelines for the eligibility criteria have not been decided by the Central government,but have been left to the states. This would create anomalies in implementation. So,a group of people eligible for benefits under the act in one state may find that they are not covered under it in another state. The impact of this provision is that in one stroke,1.47 crore people who were getting the benefit of subsidised foodgrains in Gujarat have been taken out of this scheme. This is because the Centre shall determine the number of persons that shall be covered in each state in urban and rural areas. In the case of Gujarat,before the food security ordinance was enacted,5.11 crore people came under the subsidised foodgrains scheme. After the Central law was put in place,the number declined to 3.66 crore. So,the food security bill has actually deprived 1.47 crore people in Gujarat of subsidised foodgrains.

I am of the firm view that the difference between the cycles of production and consumption of the farm produce is at the root of anomalies in the pricing structure. The crop comes once in a year,but it is consumed throughout the year. So,unless there is an adequate storage and release mechanism,prices would not be optimal for either the farmer or the consumer. An effective policy would require the government to buy the grains when prices are low to help farmers,and release them into the market when the prices go up,to help consumers. But the government has missed out on both occasions. Its policies serve neither the farmer nor the consumer.

The development of ample storage facilities,cold storage and the use of technology to enhance the shelf life of perishable foodgrains and vegetables is the only option. Sadly,the government has shown a complete lack of imagination in evolving people-friendly solutions that would lead to win-win situations. It would be a good,workable idea to encourage farmers to build proper storage facilities,rather than to leave the entire procurement and storage business to the Food Corporation of India,which has made a mess of it. Farmers could use their lands as their share of investment in the storage facility,be offered credit on soft terms to build it and then the place could be hired by the government. A cluster of villages would then get a storage facility near farms,reducing transportation costs and saving the grains from rotting.

Similarly,the government has been waiting for FDI in multibrand retail to set up the back-end infrastructure for the farm sector. But what prevents it from launching a scheme that involves local vegetable growers coming together to have cold storage facilities and chains that prevent the wastage of national produce on the fields? We have seen farmers throwing away potatoes,bananas and other produce on the streets simply because they do not have access to cold storage facilities.

The government has also shown a marked aversion to encouraging agricultural exports. It is scared of formulating a policy approach that strikes a balance between domestic needs and export markets. But careful and skilled handling of the situation can ensure that farmers benefit from tapping export markets as well.

In a nation that runs on a federal structure,lawmakers have the responsibility to take into consideration all the diversities before putting into place any legal framework. But when politics takes precedence over governance and people’s welfare is overshadowed by propaganda,such flaws are an inevitable outcome. The food security bill is yet another manifestation of the UPA’s intent to camouflage poor performance with much-hyped propaganda. But then,people are able to see through it.

The writer is former president of the BJP

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