Two of every three Indian families are eligible for subsidised foodgrains under the National Food Security Act, 2013. But last month, the Shanta Kumar High Level Committee (HLC), appointed by the NDA government recommended the dilution of this landmark legislation. They wanted to drastically reduce coverage to two of every five households. The rest of the excluded families were ostensibly expected to return their ration cards and fend for themselves.
Every single state would have been affected by this move. Even in the poorest states, coverage would have been slashed from 80 to 48 percent in Jharkhand and 84 to 50 percent in Bihar. Thankfully the Food Minister has announced that, "as the Prime Minister has already clarified, we have rejected the suggestion of reducing coverage under NFSA."
""Even if one man be denied food, we would destroy the whole world."
That apart, there have been no clarifications on the status of other big-ticket suggestions of the HLC such as almost fourfold increase in the price of foodgrains. But through the backdoor the ministry has gone many steps backwards. Apparently all union territories and states are now being coaxed to implement "pilots" to replace foodgrains with cash and, in violation of Supreme Court orders, the beneficiaries will be identified by their Aadhaar numbers. The Food Minister has said that the cash transfer programme is set to be initiated in Chandigarh and Pondicherry.
The waters are muddy -- does the government really want to mutate the law, increase food prices and give cash instead of food? Or is it a classic case of Orwellian doublespeak?
During the passage of the Act, BJP leaders had made loud proclamations. On the floor of the Rajya Sabha current Finance Minister Arun Jaitley had berated the UPA government, "... you have in fact cut down the number of people." In Parliament, his party moved amendments to ensure universal coverage to ensure universal coverage of "every resident of India" and to "remove the provision of cash transfer and food coupons."
At that time, Narendra Modi, as the Chief Minister of Gujarat, had written to his predecessor Manmohan Singh cautioning that the law could increase expenses for poor families. Even the BJP's election manifesto had proclaimed its commitment for 'universal food security'.
So, the HLC's attempt to water down this law through various means may just be a case of overstepping its mandate focused on the restructuring of the Food Corporation of India. In fact it has also junked the PM's pre-election pitch for trifurcation of the body. The government could have chosen to distance itself from its recommendations.
Already, it has turned into a political hot potato. Economists Jean Drèze and Reetika Khera have questioned its methodology, which sharply overestimates leakages of foodgrains from the Public Distribution System. DMK President Karunanidhi has written to the PM to reject them "as they would pave the way for the complete closure of [the] PDS." The Odisha and Madhya Pradesh governments have also joined the chorus.
But startlingly the chair of the HLC, former food minister Shanta Kumar, has divulged to the media that the BJP was all along opposed to the law but postured otherwise only to avoid losing votes. The illegal postponement of the mandated universal maternity entitlements and the law's implementation deadline twice does indicate that the new government is dragging its feet. The delay in the Socio Economic and Caste Census also casts a shadow on its true intent. The severe budget cuts on mid-day meals and integrated child development scheme (ICDS) are also unprecedented. And the latest backdoor push for cash undermines the BJP's sincerity.
Tamil poet Subramania Bharati had prophesied that, "Even if one man be denied food, we would destroy the whole world." Let us hope the government sees this wisdom and doesn't eat its own commitment to 'universal food security'.