Food for thought

Let us open with a few simple questions: Has India's original attempt at food security, the Public Distribution System, worked? Has it managed, in all the years of its existence, to ensure the presence of quality food grains in ration shops? Has it managed to weed out bogus cards and eliminate middlemen? Has it effectively tackled issues of supervision and accountability? Most importantly, has it managed to make our countrymen less hungry?

Answers to these are imperative, before any discussion on the Food Security Bill -- approved by Cabinet earlier this week -- can begin. What it aims to do, at least on paper, is give legal entitlement of cheaper food grains to 63.5 per cent of India's population. It intends to provide 7 kgs of rice, wheat and coarse grains per person per month to priority households at Rs 3, Rs 2 and Rs 1 per kg, respectively. It mentions something about enabling people to live with dignity.

In our humble opinion, this must be some kind of joke. If it becomes law, the food subsidy bill is expected to touch around Rs 95,000 crore. The Food Ministry says Rs 1,10,600 crore will have to be invested to boost farm production. There will be storage costs, significant amounts set aside for publicity and computerisation, and other costs to manage our ancient bureaucratic processes.

A number of economists are reportedly afraid of what this might mean for the India story. They want to know how the country, with slowing economic growth, will manage this financial burden. As journalists, we think of this as just another scheme to dangle before the electorate ahead of the 2014 elections. The government can invest in infrastructure and focus on cutting down bureaucracy. Instead, it wants to dole out freebies. We are being bribed. Should we accept it?

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