India’s Food Security Bill is probably the world’s most ambitious such project. Reports say that it plans to give regular subsidized food to two-thirds of the country’s population which works out to be roughly 800 million people.
While in theory that is quite a great notion, what will happen in practice? The food bill has raised many questions which are already being discussed in the public domain like…
1. What is the actual cost? Nowadays everyone talks of figures in the tune of one lakh crore and that’s how much is estimated to be spent on the food bill. However, recently one economist has challenged the government and said that the figure is actually in excess of three lakh crore! What is the truth? Can India afford such extravagant schemes?
2. Who will subsidise it? When someone subsidizes something, someone else has to pay for that cost. So if two-thirds of the population are getting some benefits, will the remaining one-third have to bear its cost? That’s a natural non-economist reaction, but something that will have to be answered in lay terms.
3. What about corruption? Isn’t such a grand scheme open to corruption? Right now anti-corruption is the flavour of the season and this central government is riddled with scams. Have the government come out with safeguards?
4. What about State schemes? Many states in India already provide some sort of food security to their citizens. So will this supersede all those schemes only for the Congress to take sole credit for all food security in India?
5. Is Parliament irrelevant in making such a momentous change? The Congress has only 37% of seats of the Lok Sabha and only 29% of seats in the Rajya Sabha. It is an eye-opener that such a minority party can make such a mammoth change totally bypassing Parliament and necessary political debate.
6. What grand scheme will the UPA3 introduce? UPA1 introduced NREGA which was a burden on the economy and that may have won it in 2009. UPA2 is introducing the food bill which may well win it in 2014. If such a thing happens, then what grand scheme will UPA3 introduce to win 2019? Will that take India over the brink?
7. Will this totally destroy India’s economy? Even the short-term effects look scary, but what will be its long-term effects? Will it end up totally destroying the economy? Already India was reeling thanks to subsidies when NREGA was introduced. Will this take India back to its bankruptcy levels of 1991? Will Prime Minister Manmohan Singh take us back to Ground Zero?
8. Isn’t this just merely cash for votes? This brilliant phrase was used by one political commentator on TV. The Supreme Court asked the Election Commission to crack down on freebies during the 2014 General Elections. But in one way isn’t this really the mother of all giveaways? Even UPA can’t claim credit as the full honours will be taken by the Congress because of the way it is coming into effect through an ordinance.
9. Why isn’t Manmohan Singh explaining it to us? Is our Prime Minister really a great economist as some people claim? Then why isn’t he explaining it to us through a direct speech to the nation?
Why isn’t he conducting a press conference and taking questions? What’s the point in allegedly being a great economist when he can’t even explain the greatest subsidy in the history of Independent India to the common man?
And if money doesn’t grow on trees, then where is the money for the food bill coming from?
10. Will this be Sonia’s finest moment or her undoing? Congress President Sonia Gandhi was totally in the wilderness from 1998-2004. Then the NDA’s overconfidence coupled with strange electoral maths along with the allies’ hatred of the BJP saved her in 2004.
She was saved again in 2009 by (probably) NREGA and BJP leader LK Advani’s total campaign failure.
Now she’s at the end of her tether again in 2014. Will this prove to be her masterstroke and give her 5 more years to rule India or will her gamble flop and the food bill put such a strain on the economy that it will be difficult for her to ever come back?