FOOD SECURITY ORDINANCE WHY SUCH EXCITEMENT?

Why the Ordinance?

National Food Security Bill, 2013, which was  introduced in the Parliament could not be  passed in the last session. Though it is unusual for a law  to be brought out by way of Ordinance, except in case of urgency, before the next session of the Parliament,  the party in power has its reasons, because none of the pending legislative work could be taken up because of time lost in the functioning of the Parliament.

  All the parties, however,  are not willing to disassociate  from the Bill altogether, lest  the populist element  may give sole advantage to the ruling party.  BJP had expressed itself in favour, subject to some changes. Communist Parties have only  questioned the manner in which  the Bill  is sought to be made into law.  It is also seen  as an attempt on the part of the  ruling party to steal a march over other parties  by bringing this law,  which is admittedly populist in character, before the next election.  

What are the features of the Bill?

It is a measure of social security, a feature of welfare economics, a later day development. British economist, Beveridge, gave a practical  orientation  to it in his report known as Beveridge Report in 1942 to give relief to the sufferers of war-torn England. It became a manifesto of Labour Party by heralding five social security schemes primarily to have a system to provide health care. 

It was accepted by the then Labour Party, which came  up with National Health Service in 1948.  Welfare economics, thereafter, became an important development in economic theory measuring welfare with reference to “human development index”.  Welfare economics recognises  equity, justice and altruism  as part of economic policies.

Hicks and Kaldor were the two later day economists, who had made considerable studies  with reference to the income distribution by replacing largely  the utility theory hitherto  dominating  the science of economics.  It was pointed out, that any change usually makes some people better, while others  are worse of. 

While change is inevitable and may be welcome in the larger interest of the economy, should not the winners  compensate the losers?  The optimum theory  was sought  to be replaced by judging  a policy with reference to  the maximum amount of  gainers which has been described as  Kaldor-Hicks Efficiency Test with considerable work  done on theoretical  science.  Social security is now the watch word.  In a fair economy, the foremost plank  of security is adequate food to eliminate starvation.  

History of Food Security in the States

Tamil Nadu has a fairly long history of ensuring  food either freely as under mid-day meal scheme or at a subsidised  rate under the public distribution system.  Other Southern States, Chattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Odisha also have subsidised schemes to a lesser degree.  Most other States are far behind.  National Food Security Bill, 2013  is a step to  broad-base the social objective of making food available within the reach of  the entire population in the country.  The Central Scheme  should lighten the burden of the States, which already have such schemes in operation.

What is Food Security Bill?

The Bill, now an Ordinance, contains as many as fifteen Chapters with forty seven sections and three annexures.  

The objective is to provide national food security by making available an adequate quantity of quality food at affordable  price to enable the citizens  to  live a life with dignity.  It is nothing  more than  a public distribution system  in an All India scale to be administered by the State Government with Central financing.

There are two classes of beneficiaries with identified households either  as Priority or Antyodaya households  entitled to 5 kgs or 35 kgs respectively of foodgrains per person per month. The quantity will, however, depend on whether the choice is of rice or wheat or millets. The combined coverage of Priority and Antyodaya households (called “eligible households”) may cover “up to 75 per cent of the rural population and up to 50 per cent of the urban population”.

The PDS issue prices are given in Schedule I: Rs 3/2/1 for rice/wheat/millets (called “coarse grains”). These may be revised after three years.

For children between  six to fourteen years, one free mid-day meal  except on school holidays will be available.  For children below six years, meals at the appropriate  scale for their age will be totally free and will be distributed through local anganwadi.  For children below six months, “exclusive breast feeding” will be promoted. Children with malnutrition will be identified through local anganwadi and free meals will be supplied. 

Every pregnant and lactating mother will be given  one free meal.  Pregnancy period will cover the entire period of pregnancy and six months after  child birth with maternity  benefit to the extent of Rs.6,000 to be disbursed  in six instalments.  Where a meal is to be provided, it will be hot cooked  meal or ready to eat meal or home ration as may be prescribed.  The annual requirement  of foodgrains is 612 lakhs tonnes. 

The annual expenditure  is expected to be  Rs.1,24,724 crores for financial year 2013-2014.  Poorest of the poor will get thirty five kilograms under antyodaya  and annayojna schemes. In the case of entitlement of women and children, the distribution will be  through State Government with cost sharing subject to  guidelines.  

Every school and anganwadi  will have facilities  for cooking meals with drinking water in sanitary conditions. Ration cards  will be in name of eldest  women (not less than eighteen years of age)  of each household.  Priority and  antyodaya  households will be identified, subject to the guidelines to be issued. The list of  eligible households  will be available in public domain  and displayed prominently.  

The execution of the law, slated for implementation on 20th August, the date of birth of the Rajiv Gandhi, requires large warehouses with foodgrains  being collected, stocked and distributed requiring  employment of large labour force.  It will have to be done by setting up a system with a role for private sector  with a larger number of new jobs. State Governments will have a large share of responsibility. Penalty of  Rs.5,000 is prescribed for erring officers.  

Comments on the Bill

There is widespread opposition for the adoption of Ordinance Route for the law, on the ground that Parliament is by-passed, overlooking the constitutional requirement that the life of Ordinance is only six months and will cease to be law, if not approved within this period.  Comments have been varied. 

One criticism  from the opposition, that  the Ordinance is an attempt to denigrate the Parliament makes no sense, when Parliament had not been allowed to function normally.  Since the measure is meant for the poor,  no one dares to oppose the same directly, but would think of  hundred reasons,  why it will not  work.  

Amartya Sen, the Nobel laureate is enthusiastic  and would like it to be  hurried through. He compares it with Mao’s great “forward leap” in  China.  Every delay in passing the Bill according to him would cause hundred deaths every week amounting to fifty two thousand per annum.  His fellow economists would question his figures as highly exaggerated, since deaths are not always not caused by starvation, but mostly because of premature birth, infection, congenital diseases, accidents, poor quality of water, poor medical assistance and poor diet. 

Even so,  the fact that it will reduce  starvation and that it will improve health and life expectation could hardly  be denied. Some others would point out  the possible scope  for corruption as well as  diversion of subsidised food to the black market even as had been found in Tamil Nadu.  Fears are expressed  that it will make  people idle  and make them dependant  on State assistance. Such criticism,  usually from the upper classes, indicates their class bias widely reflected in the media.

Media Reaction

Gurcharan Das, the noted journalist, writing in Sunday Times of India, dated 14th July 2013 drawing inspiration from  Bhishma’s advice from his death bed to  Yudhishthira in Mahabharata  has this to say on the Bill.

“The new food law come at a gigantic cost to a nation  that cannot afford it.  It will not solve the problem, which is malnutrition and not hunger. But it will undoubtedly result in a colossal scam when a large part of the grain mountain is diverted into the black market. Instead of improving delivery of the current PDS system, we have burdened a weak, corrupt institution with a massive new mandate.

When institutions cannot implement existing laws, it is madness to create new ones. It only widens the gap between aspiration and performance, damages the nation’s moral character, and undermines the trust between rulers and the ruled.”

The criticism in the Hindu in an editorial dated 6th July, 2013 is on similar lines, is worthy of notice.  This massive scheme giving legal right to cheap food is pushed through and has been done with an eye  on elections. The argument that it is a matter of an extraordinary  urgency  to be brought by an Ordinance does not carry conviction, because the Assembly elections are coming soon, while the Parliamentary elections  are not far off. 

The model code of conduct would bar  a law on the eve of election, so that the motive  of bringing it by way of  Ordinance is questionable.  It  is a political decision.  

Still further criticism in the Hindu is that re-vitalisation  of agricultural sector is a pre-requisite  for a reform in public distribution system and that there is no road map for such a reform in agricultural sector, so that  the Ordinance is putting the cart before the horse.   

This criticism could have been considered fair,  if it says that re-vitalisation  should also be taken  up with the same degree of urgency.  Another reason for the postponement of the Bill urged by the Hindu is that a socio-economic and caste census is expected  by the end of October, so that the Food Security Bill  could await the same.  As otherwise, it will be a partial scheme with pitfalls in identification  of targets.

It is stated that the State apparatus  should be got readied  before it becomes law, so as to enable monitoring the proper distribution, plugging leakages, wastages and diversion.  Mere sympathy  because it may be well-intended scheme should not put the cart before the horse indicating confusion as between cart and horse.

The editorial reflects  the attitude  of the upper middle class, which  enjoys  all the fruits of  our progress, while the poor have become poorer and the lower middle class persons are  struggling to maintain their  livelihood and  being pushed to lower strata of society, if  they are not lucky enough  to be promoted to the middle class group.   The degree of opposition from well-to-do indicates total opposition to social security recognised all over the world including even the  most developed countries like U.S. Such vehement opposition even in knowledgeable quarters does  indicate extreme bias.

More before the Supreme Court

Meanwhile a public interest litigation before the Supreme Court would require  the  political parties to be barred from making election promises of freebies with a view to gain votes. Food Security Bill, it is apparent, is one of the intended targets. While the Supreme Court felt  that they could do little  about it, all the same,   they have directed the Election Commission  to look into the matter and decide what it could do. 

The inference, that  freebies would cheat  the voters, grossly under-estimates the wisdom of the voter.   The Hindu dated 8th July,  2013 fairly points out to the  anomaly of the Supreme Court delegating  what it could not itself do to the Election Commission. Jurisdiction of Election Commission could, at best, be  limited to timing of the announcement of freebies.

Conclusion

Why should there be so much opposition  to extend what is in practice in some States on an all India basis even for the first step in a welfare State?  It only illustrates what history has always shown, that  vested interests do not allow its privileges to be divested and will cling to them.  It is necessary to hasten social security in all its dimensions not only for providing food, but also other amenities for life like health and shelter towards a fair distribution of income and for strengthening the economy.

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