The Passage of Indian National Food Security Bill: A Means to Winning 2014 Election?
The much-debated Indian National Food Security Bill (NFSB) is set to be passed in the second part of the Budget Session of the Parliament Standing Committee in late April. Controversy surrounding the Bill has persisted since it was first tabled in December 2011. The NFSB is aimed at providing 5kg of wheat at Rs 3/kg, rice at Rs 2/kg, and millets at Rs 1/kg per person per month to 67% of Indian 1.24 billion population.
Critics have pointed out that the immense budget needed to implement the Bill would render it financially unviable. The existing inefficient distribution systems as observed in the ongoing food subsidy initiative Public Distribution System (PDS), and the less-than-satisfactory deliveries of other aid programs, such as the anganwadi schemes for mother and child, have drawn further scepticisms. Another source of consternation is the possibility of the government emerging as a major foodgrains buyer and price regulator. The legally binding nature of the Bill would compel the government to take necessary measures that may disrupt existing market mechanisms.
Amidst the contention, the Union Cabinet’s recent approval of the Bill and the full support from Prof K.V. Thomas, the Minister of Consumer Affairs, Food and Public Distribution, are remarkable. Prof Thomas expressed his confidence in the sustainability of the Bill by elaborating on India’s abundant foodgrains production and the prediction of an increase of yields in the coming years. He further cited the Bringing Green Revolution to Eastern India (BGREI) as an anticipatory measure against rising number of population. While his statement provides certain degree of assurance on supply, it does not address the main criticisms, particularly on financial viability and distribution systems, directed towards the Bill. It is not surprising, therefore, that the imminent passage of the Bill has increasingly been seen as a mere politically-charged election-winning strategy.
Political factors indeed serve as one of the major driving forces behind the Bill. It is the flagship of the 2009 campaign promises of the ruling Congress-led United Progressive Alliance’s (UPA). The Congress, headed by Sonia Gandhi, therefore has a big stake in the passage of the Bill. The initial political trepidation was evident in the proposed Act being passed back and forth between the government, the Congress leadership, and the National Advisory. More importantly, Sharad Pawar, the Agriculture Minister and the chairman of Nationalist Congress Party, has opposed the Bill. He argued that with only 34% of Indian population living Below the Poverty Line, the 67% of total population coverage is ill-targeted. Considering that the Bill is inextricably linked with agriculture, Pawar’s lack of support is certainly intriguing.
The passage of the Bill regardless of all the irregularities therefore is suggestive of ruling party’s populist pandering. While the Bill may prove to serve as a big vote-getter in the 2014 election, whether or not it would truly benefit the 217 million of Indian malnourished is less than clear. With the absence of a comprehensive strategy aimed at addressing the many potential pitfalls, the upcoming government would undoubtedly face enormous tasks in turning the Bill into reality. Should the Gandhi-led party continue to stay in power, the success or failure of the NFSB would be an important determinant to its fate in the subsequent election.
This blog post has been written by Margareth Sembiring. She is a Research Analyst at the Centre for Non–Traditional Security (NTS) Studies in the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS).
Last updated on 29/04/2013