The bargaining begins

UPA must not let its eagerness to pass the food bill lead it towards irresponsible spending

The Food Security Bill is one of the UPA's most ambitious promises, one that it appears to be straining to introduce in the budget session. Like the MNREGS and the Right to Education earlier, it is being planned as a blockbuster welfare initiative, one the Congress can proudly present to the electorate in 2014. It is still riddled with difficult choices, however, that must be resolved. The political stakes riding on the bill should not be reason to rush it through.

For one, the standing committee has recommended a simple, single exclusion criterion, with a cap of 75 per cent of the rural population and 50 per cent of the urban, creating a 67 per cent national average. This ceiling is being challenged by many states, whose eligible population may or may not fit such a prescription. After applying the exclusion criteria, the Centre could consider the findings of the much delayed socio-economic caste census. This data could be seeded with Aadhaar to avoid pilferage. Second, the underlying problem with food security is the famously leaky, corruption-ridden public distribution system. States must have effective working systems before they can take on the scheme, and they must learn from the reforms and successes of others. Tamil Nadu's experience shows that civil society oversight can make a big difference. Chhattisgarh has made far-reaching reforms, handing over the running of PDS shops to community bodies, weeding out fake cards and using technology to monitor the movement of food. These learnings must be applied around the country and scaled up. The time for pilot schemes and district trials is over, PDS reform can no longer remain an experiment, or be optional for the states.

After the standing committee's suggestions, several states have raised their own objections to the bill. While some have objected to the eligibility criteria, preferring universal coverage, others are bargaining for the Centre to take on the bulk of the financial burden. From their perspective, since the Congress is trying to corner the political credit for food security legislation, they see no reason to pay for this exercise. This negotiation should not persuade the Centre to accommodate indiscriminate expansion. It cannot afford to take on these lavish proposals and entrench them as rights. It should, instead, specify the extent to which it will support the scheme, and remind states that they are welcome to supplement this with their own funds. Clarity is needed if the food bill is to be taken from vague promise to workable plan.

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