July 15, 2013

food security ordinance does not augur well

India does need a strong legislation on food security but the politicisation of it by Congress-UPA and the BJP & other opposition parties is unfortunate.

Here is an editorial I contributed on the issue of food security in the newspaper I presently work for:

This rush does not augur well
Food security is indeed needed for the nation but not the least in the manner as it is being rushed through by the current government

The months leading to a general election in the country are almost never conducive for a majority of the nation's population if one looks at the long-term impact. Much-needed and well-intentioned ideas and solutions, benefiting the non-affluent sections of the population, otherwise gathering dust in ministerial files get pulled up and after regressive distortions these are sought to speedily executed. 

Because all this takes place at the fag end of a government's tenure one has no choice but to surmise that this is largely to extract the maximum electoral gains and very little to do with a genuine desire to help the people of the country. This is the context under which the frantic efforts, late last week, by the central government to press for the immediate implementation of the National Food Security Ordinance with the chief ministers of Congress-ruled states. 

Other political parties, not in the ruling alliance, too, have left no stone unturned to belittle the issue of food security for our rural and urban poor; much of it coming solely due to lack of any electoral gains for themselves. 

In a country such as ours where either fatal starvation or a vicious lack of health impoverishes a vast section of the population, the idea of food security which tries to provide assured access to low-cost food is extremely vital for the long-term well-being of the nation and its economy, notwithstanding the short-term pain an economy in deficit has to endure. In their impishness, the political parties of our country have turned this sensitive matter into a nasty football match.
Even if we keep aside the untidy nature of rushing through a National Food Security Ordinance and getting it passed in a jiffy by the President who was till recently a high-ranking minister in the same government, this piece of legislation needed to be debated by the entire parliament in order to give a chance of strengthening it further. 

The food security legislation, as passed by the ordinance, encompasses two-thirds of the country's population. If there exists no adequate infrastructure and preparations to implement it to reach every man, woman and child concerned, then a phase-wise approach would have made better sense. In the greed for electoral gains the rushed attempts to reach out to the entire target level could seriously botch up the entire program. The over Rs 1,00,000 crore amount which is expected to be foregone on account of the food security program is not exactly a small sum to fritter away in inefficiencies. 

Of course, such high amounts of revenue foregone is not unique to the issue of food security. Other subsidy areas, including petroleum, fertilisers and others, together gobbled up close to Rs 2,50,000 crore in financial year 2012-13. This is not all. The government's statement of revenue foregone to difference between effective tax rates and actual applied tax rates for FY13 indicated huge sums such as Rs 68,000 crore for corporate taxpayers, Rs 37,000 crore for individual taxpayers, Rs 2,06,000 crore in excise duties and Rs 2,56,000 crore in customs duties. 

Consider, for instance, the break-up of revenue foregone in customs duties, Rs 61,000 crore for gold and other precious stones and their jewellery, and Rs 57,000 crore for petroleum. The high cost which the food security bill will impose on the country, therefore, does not stand out in isolation. 

But the country can not afford another adverse future audit report by Comptroller and Auditor General like its recent one on the Rs 58,000 crore farm loan waiver scheme. That scheme was doled out at the fag end of UPA-1 government's tenure and CAG in its audit found several cases of mis-appropriations and other issues such as exclusions of genuine loan-affected farmers. No one, therefore, can find it easy to believe that the UPA-2 government will not do the same with the food security ordinance. 

If food security is not really achieved and only an erroneous impression of it being achieved is created, it would be a tragedy.

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