The Congress has ruled India for 54 of the last 67 years; that it took the party over six decades to come up with bills that provide citizens their basic needs is a shame, not a moment of triumph, says Amberish K Diwanji.
The Food Security Bill has been blasted by many people as something that India can ill-afford at this stage.
One of the better articles on the subject is written by Vivek Kaul. Politicians say it smacks of electoral opportunism, given that elections are just months away.
It is difficult to pick flaws in the economic arguments against the bill. How much the bill will cost the country is still unclear. Different figures have been given out and the figure will vary over the years.
This year India has had a good monsoon, hence crops will be abundant and food cheap. What will happen if the monsoon was to fail next year?
Moreover, in a year when the economy is slipping, with falling tax revenues, the government will be hard pressed to come up with funds. As Kaul writes, if this should lead to the government printing more money, inflation for sure will follow.
As it is, the falling rupee might will lead to higher payment for imported petroleum, which in turn will cause prices of food to rise due to higher transportation costs.
All in all, there will be a heavy price to pay.
But for all these arguments, there is a moral question. Sixty-seven years after Independence, shouldn't food be assured to ALL Indians?
Another way of looking at this is that we should be ashamed that it took us so long to pass this bill. For a country that aspires to great power status, it is shameful to think that we need a food security bill to ensure that every person can receive two square meals a day.
There is no way India, or Indians, can achieve any level of greatness if scores of our people have to struggle for the basic needs of life: Food, clothing, shelter, healthcare for all, education for all children, and employment for all able-bodied people.
It is no doubt galling to hear the UPA boast that its bills on Right to Education, National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, and now Food Security, will provide these rights to all citizens.
The Congress has ruled India for 54 of the last 67 years; that it took the party over six decades to come up with these bills that provide citizens their basic needs is a shame, not a moment of triumph.
The fact is that for all their achievements, during the reigns of Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi, the Congress failed to provide the basic economic rights to the people.
Also, let us be courageous enough to admit this, for most middle-class Indians, caring for the poorest was never a priority. Sure we loved slogans promising 'Garibi Hatao', but actually very little really happened.
The middle-class grip on the Indian State was strong enough to ensure that slogans for the poor remained just that. Anyone who actually did something to upset this apple-cart paid a heavy price (remember V P Singh?)
Take education, for instance. India spent incalculable billions of rupees to set up IITs and IIMs while neglecting primary education. Inexpensive tertiary education benefitted the middle classes when sending their children to inexpensive colleges because they could easily pay even expensive school fees.
Even the most expensive schools are nothing compared to what colleges cost. This neglect of primary education meant that millions of poor children never got past class school, forget attending college.
There is no doubt the food bill will cost plenty. The bill isn't perfect either. For instance, why should it cover 67 per cent of the population and not just the poor?
Leakages in the distribution system will have to plugged to prevent food meant for the poor from being consumed along the way. All these problems need to be looked at.
That the timing is political is beyond a doubt. But then the Congress is a political party. What did the others expect? That they would pass the bill at a time that suits the Opposition?
Yet if paying for the food bill sees inflation rise, the Congress may well end up ruing their decision on the bill.
Politics has a habit of surprising those who are cocksure of victory. And given all the mistakes the Congress/UPA has made, the Opposition has no lack of fodder to target the ruling coalition. But that is for the political pundits to discuss.
What should be beyond debate is that assuring food to ALL is the right thing to do.
Image: Labourers carry harvested wheat in a field outside Ahmedabad, Gujarat. Photograph: Amit Dave/Reuters