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.
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.
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.