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Food security bill should not be pushed through. A discussion in Parliament is needed to expose its flaws
Amid the acrimony in Parliament, the government tabled its food security bill, a work-in-progress since the beginning of its term in 2009. On Monday, it initiated a preliminary discussion on the bill even as opposition MPs shouted slogans in the well of the House. Evidently, the Congress is in a hurry to push this populist bill through, given that it is the most important item on party president Sonia Gandhi's to-do list, and is set to be pitched as one of the party's main election planks. While it has thankfully rejected the undemocratic option of ramming it through as an ordinance, this effort to push the bill through without full consideration by all parties is just as problematic. If it is passed in this climate of non-cooperation, it is not just that its very legitimacy will be suspect, but also that its most basic conceptual flaws will remain unaddressed.
Of course, it is not as though the opposition parties are likely to reject it. Food security is a resonant concept, and an atmosphere has been created where to oppose the legislation is almost to invite blame for malnutrition. It would also allow the Congress to claim sole credit for championing this blockbuster welfare initiative. Most political parties appear to have no choice, therefore, but to assent to this misguided legislation. In fact, the food security bill will do little to genuinely address the real nutritional needs of the nation, but will distort the grain market, and saddle the system with yet another legal entitlement that cannot be undone. NSSO data shows that per-calorie food consumption is falling not because large parts of India cannot feed themselves basic grain, but because they are turning to better food like protein, vegetables, tea etc. By subsidising cereals on a massive scale and messing with the market, routing delivery through the leaky and corruption-ridden PDS, the food security bill threatens to create more problems than it will solve. Certainly, it is a moral imperative to provide food security to those who are hungry. But it must be solved by targeted intervention, not this kind of blunt legislation to cover three-quarters of the population.