Political parties wary but dare not oppose food Bill
When I hear of any scheme for the poor, I get worried, Janata Dal (U) president Sharad Yadav said while opening his remarks on the Food Security Bill debate in Parliament. Over the years, he said, warming the hearts of all those pro-reformists who cite data to show 40-50% leakages in schemes like PDS, we have launched so many programmes for the poor but little has reached them—India, he said, didn’t have a steel frame, it had a “steeled frame”, those who ensured the poor didn’t get their rights had got so brazen, no one could stop them from filching what was meant for the poor. The government’s calculations of the costs of the food Bill, Yadav echoed CACP chairman Ashok Gulati, were wrong since they did not take into account the need for new godowns—FCI has godowns for just 40 million tonnes of foodgrain while India needs 65 million tonnes for the food Bill; in Bihar alone, he said, you need to invest R1,500 crore to set up new godowns. Having ripped into the Bill, Yadav surprised everyone by saying he supported the Bill and, over a period of time, the Bill needed to be universalised—all the population should get subsidised grain, not just two-thirds of it. Samajwadi Party chief Mulayam Singh Yadav said the Bill had nothing on the additional burden that this would put on states; he also made a valid point that, given this, states should have been asked for their opinion.
In other words, given that no political party wanted to be seen as opposing freebies in the name of the poor, the debate went along party lines; with the deal worked out in advance, like Yadav’s critique, the speeches meant little. The BJP, though it opposes the Bill, didn’t deviate from the script either and spoke of the need to universalise subsidised grain as is the case in Chhattisgarh that is run by it. Echoing the line given by the party’s prime ministerial hopeful in a letter to the Prime Minister, party leader Murli Manohar Joshi spoke of how the Bill wasn’t giving enough subsidised grain to the poor. Narendra Modi’s letter to the Prime Minister on the food Bill had spoken of how the lowering entitlements for the poor would mean they would have to spend R85 more per month—never mind that this is half the daily wage in Gujarat. Not only did few MPs stress on the wastage in such schemes—Yadav did say it pained him to even talk of MGNREGA, but left it at that—or the huge losses in storage, few mentioned the 15% mandi tax that state governments pocket and how this will grow; even fewer talked of the savings that could be got through Aadhaar-based direct cash transfer. Moral of the story, there isn’t a freebie that India’s elected representatives don’t like. And there’s little point blaming just the UPA for this, though it would be interesting to see how investors react to this latest piece of rampant populism.