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Friday, July 13, 2012

Food Security- Importance and Means

The Left parties are conducting  a joint campaign and movement on the issue of food security throughout the country in July-August. This movement is to demand a universal public distribution system to ensure food security for all citizens.

The demand for a food security law which will ensure the right to food for all people has become all the more urgent and necessary as there is no let-up in the price rise of food items and food inflation rate hovers around  10 per cent.  India has the largest number of malnourished and undernourished people in the world.

One would have thought that in such a grim situation, the UPA government would urgently take up the Food Security Bill pending before Parliament. But it has become evident that the government has other priorities.

The worsening economic situation has led to strident calls for the implementation of  more neo-liberal measures.  The economic slowdown  is being attributed to the UPA-II government’s failure to push through neo-liberal reforms.  The economic advisors and the corporate media see the present impasse as the most opportune to prod the Manmohan Singh government into  undertaking the very measures which have led to the  crisis in the first place.  The chorus of demands are coming in thick  and fast. Decontrol diesel pricing; opening up multi-brand retail trade to FDI; stop harassing foreign investors and speculators with tax avoidance regulations; step up the disinvestment  of shares in the public sector enterprises and so on.

That the UPA government is heeding to these demands  has become evident  in the last few days.  The Prime Minister has taken charge of the finance portfolio after the exit of Pranab Mukherjee on his becoming the candidate for the post of President. Immediately after assuming charge of the Finance Ministry, the Prime Minister met the officials of the Ministry  and told them: “We need to reverse the climate of pessimism.  Revive the animal spirits in the country’s economy; there are problems on the tax front which need to be addressed.”  The “animal spirits” is a refrain of the Prime Minister whenever he wishes to give a fresh thrust to free market enterprise.

The advent of the Prime Minister to the Finance Ministry has led to two immediate steps being taken.  The first is a  re-look at the retrospective tax amendment passed in the Finance Bill during the last budget.  This amendment enables the  revival of the demand for capital gains tax on Vodafone to the amount of Rs. 13,000 crores.   The amendment was cited as one of the main reasons for  scaring off foreign investors and FII flows. Both C. Rangarajan, the head of the Prime Minister’s Economic Advisory Council and Montek Singh Ahluwalia, Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission have decried this step.  Though this has been passed by Parliament, Ahluwalia had declared that it should be  used in the rarest of occasions.

The second  step is the review of the General Anti-Avoidance Rules (GAAR).  These are rules meant to check avoidance of tax on funds flowing  into India utilizing tax havens.  This could have been used to check tax evasion by those utilizing the Mauritius route. Due to strong opposition of the financial lobbies, the Finance Minister had announced that its implementation would be postponed by a year.  Now the effort is to scuttle it altogether.  At the efforts of the Prime Minister and his economic advisors is to meet the demands of finance capital and speculators.  The revival  of investor sentiment and “animal spirits” is designed to appease these interests. For the rest, the talk of curbing the fiscal deficit and the runaway expenditure means austerity measures for the people.  The demand to urgently cut subsidies on fuel and fertilizers is a corollary of this.

With such an outlook to revive the economy, measures such as the Food Security law are seen  as populist and wasteful.  The Food Security legislation was expected to be passed in the monsoon  session of Parliament. But there are no signs of this happening.  The Standing Committee of Parliament looking into the legislation has not  completed its work yet. The draft Bill perpetuates the targeting of people into priority (BPL) and general (APL).  This will automatically exclude 54 per cent of the families in rural areas and 72 per cent in the urban areas.  The Below Poverty Line cardholders will have to pay Rs. 3 per kg of rice when eight states are providing rice at Rs. 1 or 2 per kg for those in the BPL list.

The government is eager to please the foreign speculators and finance capital by further  liberalizing their entry and ensuring that their profits are not taxed while people of India are to suffer from hunger and malnutrition because the government cannot increase the food subsidy to provide for a public distribution system for all.  It is in this context that the Left parties movement for food security assumes importance. In the weeks to come, lakhs of people are going to be mobilised on the four demands of the campaign which are as follows:

•        No BPL or APL, we demand a universal public distribution system
•        35 kg of foodgrains at not more than Rs. 2 per kg every month for each family
•        Scrap the Planning Commission’s bogus poverty estimates as the basis for welfare rights
•        Implement the Swaminathan Commission recommendations for a fair price and profit margin for farmers.

This movement will culminate in a five-day dharna from July 30 to August 3, 2012 at New Delhi during the monsoon session of Parliament.  All those who have concern for the welfare of the people and who consider the right to food should be a fundamental right for all citizens should  extend their full support to this movement.

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