The Food Security Bill recently passed in the Indian parliament is raising more questions than answers. Given the corruption in current food schemes, poor Indians doubt that they will benefit from the new one.
The much publicized Food Security Bill designed to put food on every poor man's plate in India is considerably controversial. The Bharatiya Janata Party, the largest opposition party, is up in arms against it, terming it an election gimmick on the part of the Congress-led UPA government ahead of general elections early next year. They have dubbed it the "Vote Security Bill."
BJP leader Arun Jaitley says that the government should have announced incentives for farmers. "Congress has enacted the law to garner votes in next general election," he alleges. In states like West Bengal and Uttar Pradesh ruling and opposition political parties have slammed the law, saying it is "impractical" and bound to fail.
Passed in both the houses of the parliament, with nearly 300 amendments, the bill enables the government to provide subsidized food grains to two-thirds of India's population - about 800 million people - many of whom regularly face food shortages. Many also suffer from malnutrition. The central government will support states where there is a grain shortage. The states will in turn decide who is to benefit. Pregnant women and breast-feeding mothers, for instance, would be entitled to nutritious meals and maternity benefits for six months.
Sixty-two million tons of food grain will be required at a cost of 20 billion US dollars, making it the largest program of its kind in the world. The program will be financed by a 10-percent increase in government borrowing. But critics say New Delhi has not considered the costs of storing and distributing the food. The true cost will be much higher, they say.
Apart from political controversy, critics point out that food grain is to be distributed through the public distribution system (PDS), which itself is inefficient and contains many loopholes. The million-dollar question now being asked is whether the poor will actually benefit.
Who will benefit?
Ground realities suggest the scheme will face considerable difficulties.
Guma is a nondescript village in West Bengal's North 24 Parganas district about 50 kilometers from the capital Kolkata. It is typical of rural eastern India. Two hundred-odd families live there. They are solely dependent on agriculture and are living below the poverty line at the present time. They should benefit from the government's food program, but Sujit Jana, head of a six member family, has his doubts.
"We do not get a regular weekly ration under the present system. So what is the use of such schemes? Most of the food will vanish before reaching us," he predicts angrily.
"Middlemen will reap the profits and the people do not dare to complain against the nexus of politician and ration dealers," complains another farmer, Debanjan Das. Sujit Jana blames the country's economic situation. "Such laws come and go, but our situation is getting worse due to the increase in the prices of essential commodities."
"No government cares about us,"76-year-old widow Sumana Mondal says bitterly.
Rampant corruption at regional and local level
The reason for their despair lies in the present ration system controlled by so-called ration dealers, who are often corrupt. With the tacit approval of local politicians, they sell the food grain supplied for government programs on the open market, thus depressing prices further.
Sharmila, wife of marginal farmer, Naren Jana, lives in the South 24 Parganas district. She says, "Ration dealers have to give donations to the ruling party. So they sell the food grain on the black-market to make a profit." Moreover, local politicians work to ensure that the food program benefits those who live in areas which traditionally support their respective party. Another issue is the market price of grain, which is six times higher than the price of grain through the government program. This will stimulate hoarding and black-marketeering, many believe. Basanti, a young mother, admits she can't provide enough food to her two children. "We won't get much under the new law," she predicts.
Opposition by the political parties
The central government, however, remains upbeat about the food program. Union Food Minister K. V. Thomas has called a two day meeting of state food ministers and secretaries on September 23-24 to ensure the smooth implementation of the law ahead of next year's general elections.
"We will discuss implementation of the food law and related provisions like supply and storage of food grains in the states," Thomas says. Some states like Uttarakhand, Haryana and Delhi have already announced plans to implement the law. But unless the government tackles the issue of endemic corruption in the public food distribution system, it is easy to understand why impoverished rural Indians remain skeptical.