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A hasty and stunted legislation for food security in India

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The United Progressive Alliance in India, the ruling political coalition at whose centre is the Congress party, has called it “a historic initiative for ensuring food and nutritional security to the people”. By this is meant The National Food Security Bill, which was passed by the Lok Sabha on 26 August 2013.

In recent weeks, criticisms of the provisions of the bill and suggestions for its amendment gathered quickly, from political parties, from state governments, from civil society and NGOs and academics, and from citizens who have followed the twists and turns of the draft legislation since 2010. How many of these have been incorporated into the bill as passed by the Lok Sabha is still unclear, but a government press release stated that ten amendments were approved. I don’t know which ten but these would be small in number compared with the scores of amendments, corrections, modifications and re-draftings suggested by groups and coalitions that have long worked for food security in India and its states.

Sifting through news reports for relevant information, I find that:

(1) The government has said that the word ‘meal’ as used in the approved bill means hot cooked or pre-cooked and heated food and not the packaged food, which was a definition that provoked many when it was spotted in the draft. This is an important amendment as it has an impact on the enormous mid-day meals (for schoolchildren in government schools) and the integrated child development services (ICDS) programmes, which reach tens of millions. The fear was that packaged food would supplant, to the detriment of the children, hot and fresh cooked meals.

(2) As far as I can make out, another approved amendment gives states a year to implement the bill instead of six months. Earlier, under the ordinance (whose passage was roundly condemned), the central government was to determine the number of eligible beneficiaries in each state. Not only was this centrist in nature, it required the process by which beneficiary households were to be identified to be completed within 180 days, even though the guidelines for such identification are yet to be issued by the central government. Moreover, there has been no consultation with the states on this aspect.

(3) There is some reference made to the states determining their approach and measures towards implementing the bill, which will be (or may be) governed by “rules” that are to be drawn up in consultation with the state governments. This is important for, in the text of the Food Security Ordinance the central government reserved the right to introduce cash schemes instead of food in the Rules of the proposed legislation. This had signalled quite clearly its longer-term agenda of dismantling the system of procurement of grain from farmers at notified minimum support prices.

The reportage of the passing of the bill has touched upon a variety of issues and concerns, and here is a selection:

Lok Sabha passes Food Security Bill
Sonia Gandhi’s ambitious food bill gets Lok Sabha nod; UPA gets its ‘game-changer’
The Food Security Bill will cost a lot more than projected
Food security bill: Is it right or fight to food?
Long due, Food Security Bill meets mixed reaction
Food Bill will not raise fiscal deficit: Chidambaram
‘Not against Food Security Bill, but want certain changes’: BJP
Food Security a ‘historic opportunity’ or mere ‘vote security’?
Food security Bill gets Lok Sabha nod as Sonia lauds ’empowerment revolution’

The government has said that the Bill will cover 75% of the rural population and 50% percent of the urban population in all states, coming to an average of 67% for the total national population. This however will use (we await a full reading of the approved amendments that will clarify this matter) the methodology of the Planning Commission for poverty estimates which is to provide the basis for dividing the population between below and above the poverty line. This is the same methodology and ratios that have been soundly discredited.

The point that has been made forcefully by the Communist Party of India Marxist (CPIM) is that these caps on population compromise utterly the right of state governments to decide criteria as contained in the bill. The caps are set by Planning Commission methods, not by state governments themselves. That is why the guidelines that are to be drafted – via consultation, the central government has said – by the state governments must ensure the maximum inclusion, and not the limited inclusion decided by the Planning Commission.

Moreover, the All India Kisan Sabha at its 33rd All India Conference (24-27 July 2013 in Cuddalore, Tamil Nadu) had in a resolution of food security described the policy canvas against which this food security bill has now been passed:

“India has become more food-insecure over the last decade in terms of all three dimensions of food security: availability, access and absorption. Availability has been undermined by policies reducing productivity growth and making grain cultivation unremunerative. Access has been weakened by jobless growth and massive inflation destroying people’s purchasing power. Absorption has been undermined by the failure to invest in safe drinking water and sanitation. All three consequences are directly traceable to neoliberal policies. Yet, the UPA government hypocritically talks of food security and has promulgated a so-called Food Security Ordinance in an attempt to gain political mileage while flouting all norms of parliamentary democracy.”

Documents for reference:

The National Food Security Bill, 2013
The National Food Security Bill, 2011
The National Food Security Ordinance, 2013
Report of the expert committee on the national food security bill
Lok Sabha Standing Committee report on National Food Security Bill
Food subsidy and its utilisation
NRAA – Challenges of food security

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India fuel price rise provokes Left

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The rise in fuel prices in India has led the four Left parties – Communist Party of India (Marxist), Communist Party of India, All India Forward Bloc and Revolutionary Socialist Party – to issue the following statement:

The decision of the UPA government to inflict a steep rise in the prices of petrol, diesel, kerosene oil and cooking gas is a cruel blow against the people who are already suffering due to the runaway increase in the prices of food and essential commodities. The price of petrol has gone up by Rs. 3.50 per litre, diesel by Rs. 2 per litre, kerosene oil by Rs. 3 per litre and cooking gas by Rs. 35 per cylinder.
This callous decision of the government has come at a time when the food inflation rate is around 17 per cent and the general inflation rate has reached double digits. India has the dubious distinction of having the highest rate of consumer price inflation in the world.
The UPA government has decided to deregulate the price of petrol and leave it to the market to determine. Going by the Kirit Parikh Report, the government is going to decontrol prices of all petroleum products, including diesel. This is going to prove disastrous for the economy and the country.
The government is giving false arguments to justify these measures. The prices of petrol and diesel were increased by Rs. 3 per litre only three months ago at the time of the Union Budget. International oil prices have not risen substantially in this period. Neither is the government prepared to rationalize the taxation structure on petroleum products which is adding to a price of petrol and diesel in a large measure.
It is a myth that such a step is being taken to protect the public sector companies from under-recoveries. The so-called under-recoveries are entirely based on notional prices calculated without any reference to the actual cost of production. In fact, the deregulation is only to help private companies who withdrew from the market because of the government price controls. Now they will be free to enter the market to make profits.
By deregulating petrol prices, the government has opened the way for continuous increases in the prices of petrol. By increasing the price of diesel and kerosene oil, the farmers and the poorer sections are going to be badly hit. The LPG increase will further burden the middle classes.
The Congress-led government has shown its callous and anti-people character by these measures. The Left parties demand the immediate scrapping of the price increases. They call upon all their units to jointly launch protests against these hikes.

The statement is signed by Prakash Karat, General Secretary, CPI(M); A B Bardhan, General Secretary, CPI; Debabrata Biswas, General Secretary, AIFB; T J Chandrachoodan, General Secretary, RSP