The discordance of views between the National Advisory Council and the Prime Minister's Expert Committee on Food Security was ironed out by a compromise between contending parties on the quantum and level of subsidies for food security.
But there was no public debate on the larger issues involved in food security, like feasibility of the public distribution system (PDS).
India has often let go such great opportunities, avoiding open debates on matters of vital public importance. We avoided an open debate on the Nehruvian socialist misadventure, for which we suffered some four decades.
This is not the first time that the PDS has been a subject of intense controversy. The first time this happened was when Rafi Ahmed Kidwai was Food and Agriculture Minister in Nehru's Cabinet. Finally, the Food Corporation of India won the day by prevailing upon the Opposition to maintain the status quo and keep the PDS going, along with the paraphernalia of food procurement.
PDS AND PILFERAGE
The logic of those who oppose the PDS is irrefutable. PDS necessarily involves a dual pricing mechanism which is opposed to the idea of a unified market. Properly implemented, PDS would take away almost 70 per cent of the foodgrain market.
The PDS is a white elephant, and the foodgrain market can hardly hope to bear such a burden. In today's situation, that kind of dual pricing will not be acceptable to the WTO.
Rationing has been in existence for long, long time. There has been a continual debate on whether a free market system works better than a controlled PDS with several layers of inspection.
The recent case of Lt. Col. Sahani has clearly brought out the impossibility of a well-regulated rationing system existing even under military rule.
The PDS, by its nature, offers great opportunities for pilferage.
The PMO will find it impossible to maintain its clean image in the event of another multi-million scam in the domain of PDS, if it continues to insist on a system of food security implemented through a rationing system.
The PDS has failed beyond redemption and any plans to ensure food security through the PDS is doomed to disaster. The largest support for PDS comes from regions where the proportion of pilferage is maximum.
The present system of agricultural marketing in India is based on three pillars. The first is the Commission for Agricultural Costs and Prices (CACP) that establishes some kind of estimates of the cost of cultivation that the farmers must recover. In fact, its estimates come closer to a running average of last three years' prices, according to an expert committee. The Food Corporation of India (FCI), the second pillar, is only nominally responsible for the prices it pays for the foodgrains.
It is mainly in charge of foodgrain procurement and pumping the foodgrains procured into the rationing system. The CACP has become redundant since we now have, in futures markets, a much better estimate of prices that farmers can expect at harvest time.
The rationing system, the third pillar, has become a target of criticism because of the large holes that are built into it. Most of the defects of the rationing system can be remedied by the system of food coupons that could be linked with the UID.
This is once again an excellent opportunity to have a public debate on all these issues. It appears that we will fritter away the opportunity.
(The author is founder, Shetkari Sangatana and a Rajya Sabha MP. email@example.com)