UPA’s money for poor funding political class

As the Parliament debates the Food Security Bill, it is time we should consider whether many of the government’s landmark schemes really empower the poor or just ensures steady supply of public money to the political workers at the grass-root level.

The Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS) implemented in 2006 was aimed to providing social security to the poor across India. But, the government went for a populist move by making it universal across India ensuring political workers can loot public money easily.

In richer states getting labour at twice the NREGA wages is difficult. But, still the governments were able to find enough people to work for a paltry sum under NREGA.

The average day of work people got in Punjab was between 24 to 49 days between 2006 and 2013. In Kerala, it was between 21 to 37 days. In Himachal, it ranged between 39 to 47 days during the same period. This data indicates the real beneficiaries of this public money— the political workers in connivance with the local government officials.

In poorer states like Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Orissa, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan some genuine people would have benefited from MGNREGA but the real gain would have been for village level political activists. Or else, why people contesting panchayat polls in states like UP and Bihar spend lakhs of rupees on campaigning?

Madhya Pradesh recently scanned through 1.25 crore job cards issued under NREGA. To its shock, half of the job cards were found to be fake. The government officials have their reasons for a dip in job cards but it is not satisfactory.

Uttar Pradesh and Bihar have also reported huge fake job cards. A parliamentary committee found that issuing of fake job cards was rampant across India and asked the rural development ministry to re-validate the issued job cards.

Logically, the scheme in its seven years and after spending over Rs 2 lakh crore should have changed face of rural India. It hasn’t in most parts. The reason is amply clear —- state sponsored corruption programme.

I have recalled the NREGA experience here because the government is set to launch another ambitious and so-called pro-poor programme, food security law. It aims to cover 67% of the population — 75% in rural India and half in urban areas and would cost the government over Rs 1,35,000 crore every year.

The new food security law could turn into yet another programme to fund political workers at the grass-root level through public exchequer as most of the fair price shops, through which food security will be implemented, is owned by them. Allocating a fair price shop in most states is prerogative of the political class without any transparency and accountability. In such a system, I doubt whether the Food Security Bill will get delivered.

A much smaller version of food security law — the Public Distribution System — which covers around 34% of the country’s population is a disaster. As per National Sample Survey Office estimates only around half of the beneficiaries listed under the PDS take their monthly quota of food grains. The rest is just diverted into the black market, a reason why the political class wants to keep allocation of fair price shops in their hands.

Before introducing the food security law, the government did not make any effort to reform the fair price shop system. It also did not address the issue of the quality of grains — a reason for poor off-take from the PDS. In absence of all this, I wonder how the government would ensure that all 67% people buy food grains from fair price shops and the scheme does not result in more flow of public funds for political foot-soldiers of parties.

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