Entitlement follies

Predictably, Lok Sabha debate on the food security bill saw no real argument against a flawed law.

The question is not how and whether we can do it, we have to do it," said Congress president Sonia Gandhi to the House, on enacting the food security legislation. Given the usual radio silence from the UPA's top leadership, and given how rarely and reluctantly Gandhi speaks in the House, it was a significant intervention. She used the occasion to reel off the UPA's big moves — from RTI to NREGA, the Forest Rights Act and the Right to Education. And to make a case for a fundamentally flawed law.

That the food security bill would make it through Parliament was a foregone conclusion. For all the early resistance from several quarters, the delay and obstruction that preceded the legislation, it was obvious that this bill would be difficult for any political party to argue with, especially on the brink of a general election. Never mind that it flies in the face of economic rationality at a time when growth is crawling at crisis levels, and that, in its current form, the law is almost certain to be an expensive and leaky boondoggle. Leaning on the public distribution system is almost an invitation to greater levels of corruption. It will distort agricultural priorities. When vast amounts of grain are procured by the state for the PDS and buffer stocks, diverted from the open market, food inflation will be a serious concern. This massive provision of cheap cereal ignores the data that the poor need better nutrition, that the shrinking population that cannot afford grain can be helped with more targeted intervention, instead of this vast and inefficient legislation.

The Lok Sabha debate, though, evaded all these issues. Instead of showing the Congress the obvious chinks in its pet law, and instead of articulating a responsible economic position, opposition parties chose to unanimously assent "in principle", only quibbling on details. In fact, the only real grouse they seemed to have is that the Congress would corner all the electoral credit. The BJP chose to attack it from the left, asking why entitlement could not cover even more of the population, like the Chhattisgarh law does, while parties like the SP and AIADMK asked how states were going to bear the increased costs. Many took the opportunity to speak feelingly of hunger, and the failures of trickle-down economics. Not one party thought it worthwhile to explain how growth offers the only sustainable way to improve the quality of life for the poor. A circumscribed debate is set to bring India a law riddled with problems.

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