The Union Cabinet may have given its nod to the food security ordinance with an eye on the forthcoming elections, but the UPA government's 'game-changer' will still take six to nine months for the on-ground rollout as its beneficiaries are yet be identified by the states.
Food ministry officials concede that successful implementation of the programme, it is imperative to create an entirely different mechanism that identifies and reaches out to 67 per cent of over 120 crore Indians eligible for 5 kg subsidised foodgrain every month.
Calculation The Lok Sabha elections are scheduled to be held May 2014, and any delay in the scheme's execution may send the Congress's electoral calculations into a tailspin. The issue has already been discussed extensively within the food ministry.
"Our assessment of the timeline for this process identifying beneficiaries hasn't changed much from an earlier estimate of six to nine months. The states would start working in all earnest, once the law or an ordinance comes into effect," a senior official said on Thursday.
PERSPECTIVE:Will the states really benefit from Food Security Bill?
It's a view echoed by leading activists like Nikhil Dey who've been canvassing for the universal public distribution system (PDS) and discussed within Parliament for several amendments.
"Even if some states manage to implement it earlier they would be doing it arbitrarily... our view is not just six to nine months, the process could take even longer than one year," Dey told MAIL TODAY.
At present, the government has an extensive PDS that covers around 6.52 crore BPL, 2.43 crore AAY and 11.5 crore APL families. The new system will cover around 80 crore people, each individual identified and made part of this ID system. It is long process as there would be different coverage levels in different states.
In a tribal state like Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh, the coverage would be higher than 67 per cent, while it could be lower in affluent states or parts of the country.
Besides, what makes it even trickier is the multiplicity of existing poverty estimates. For instance, the 2009-10 round of national sample survey showed that the population below poverty line in urban and rural centers was 66.70 per cent and 64.47 per cent respectively. It was different as per the Tendulkar committee.
Union Food Minister K. V. Thomas was more optimistic about the 'six to nine' month time-span for identification and subsequent rollout process. "I don't think it would take that much time... The states are doing we have given states the freedom and additional financial incentives vis-a-vis the cheaper and the shared transportation cost," Thomas said.
The hurry and the hype surrounding the food security Bill - though, UPA brought in an ordinance - has to do with electoral gains. Introduction of such a bill can be one of the few schemes that UPA-2 can tout as a truly 'Aam Aadmi' scheme.
Many Congress leaders hope it would help it win back a significant proportion of the economically-weaker section voters in rural and urban areas. All becomes important in the next months as key states go to polls before the general elections.
The UPA's bungling of the Food Security Ordinance - failing to provide it in time the President and jumping the gun on trying to claim credit anyhow - is a bad omen for the ambitious policy that has plenty of potential for failure.
The approach to the states is also going to run into trouble - many of them are being force-fed the programme despite having competent schemes of their own while the timelines and funding requirements for those that don't seem far too optimistic.
In association with Mail Today