A central government initiative which chief minister J Jayalalithaa had opposed has now been given the green signal. As she recuperates, are her decisions being reversed?
Shivani Chaturvedi | November 17, 2016 | Chennai
The unthinkable has just happened. The Tamil Nadu government’s decision to implement the National Food Security Act (NFSA) has raised eyebrows. The move was opposed by chief minister J Jayalalithaa, who, today, lay in the hospital for over one-and-a-half months, and is believed to be recuperating from a serious, though undisclosed, health condition. Not just that, the state is also about to join Ujwal DISCOM Assurance Yojana (UDAY), another central scheme which Jayalalithaa was not ready to adopt.
Governance in Tamil Nadu is seemingly going against the grain as Jayalalithaa is recuperating from protracted illness. The 68-year-old chief minister, who was admitted to Chennai’s Apollo hospital on September 22, had remained on the ventilator and was apparently unconscious for a good part of her hospitalisation. This had left one of India’s biggest states without a decision-maker. Governance went into rigor mortis as her supporters were never encouraged to take decisions without Amma’s larger-than-life presence. They merely held night-long vigils and prayed for her recovery.
Finally, after one month, matters came to a pass where decision-making was unavoidable. So, one day, finance minister O Panneerselvam placed a framed picture of Amma, as the chief minister is called, on the table before presiding over the cabinet meeting. Notwithdstanding the reverence bestowed on Jayalalithaa in absentia, in the same meeting, the Tamil Nadu government took a decision to go ahead with NFSA.
About-turn on NFSA
Tamil Nadu had opposed the very draft of the national food security bill, when it was sent to the states in 2011 by the then UPA government. Today, the NFSA provides for cheaper grain to 75 percent of the rural population and half of the city dwellers through the public distribution system (PDS).
The same year, Jayalalithaa had written a letter to the then prime minister Manmohan Singh, opposing the draft national food security bill, saying it was replete with “confusion and inaccuracy”. She said the centre “should not attempt or be seen to attempt encroaching into the domain of the states” and sought exemption for Tamil Nadu.
“In a federal structure like ours where the states are in close and direct contact with the people, the choice of designing and implementing popular welfare schemes is at best left to the states,” said Jayalalithaa who is not known for mincing her words. Tamil Nadu had its own scheme of providing grain to the poor at cheaper rates, and took the central proposal as infringment on its domain.
However, on October 27, the state government received an ultimatum from the ministry of consumer affairs, food and public distribution. The ministry told the state that if it does not implement NFSA from November, it would no longer be entitled to 1.26 lakh tonnes of rice at the rate of Rs 8.3 per kg. This non-cooperation would also deprive Tamil Nadu of extra quantity of rice, the letter from the ministry had warned.
A senior bureaucrat, not wishing to be named, says that the government had no option but to implement the NFSA. Otherwise the centre would have discontinued the monthly supply of rice under the above poverty line (APL) category at Rs 8.30 and instead charged Rs 22.54. This could mean the state would have to incur an additional expenditure of about Rs 2,730 crore annually over and above the present expenditure of Rs 2,393 crore.
As doctors from abroad were flying in to treat Jayalalithaa, Tamil Nadu became part of the NFSA regime on November 1.
Tamil Nadu, like its neighbour, Kerala, had its own universal PDS, which predated the NFSA. Under this, the holders of Antyodaya Anna Yojana cards were given 35 kg of rice free; they could buy more for Rs 3 per kg. The BPL card holders got 20 kg of free rice and extra at Rs 5.65 per kg. The rest of ration card holders could buy it at Rs 8.30.
With the centre revising the prices for the APL category, the state would have to bear extra for the food bill had it not embraced the NFSA. The state has since revised its PDS regime. Now, all 192 lakh rice card holders will get 5 kg rice per person per month and it will be free. The APL will have to pay more for rice.
However, even this, sources say, is likely to substantially raise the cost of food subsidies for the state.
U-turn on UDAY
Tamil Nadu had spurned UDAY saying it would benefit only private discoms and not the state.
UDAY is aimed at improving the operational efficiency and financial turnaround of power distribution companies. Jayalalithaa maintained that it would negatively impact the state and its people while benefitting the private power producers and banks.
Addressing an election rally in Cuddalore district in April, she said, “The UDAY scheme is brought so that the state government can take the liabilities of the power distribution companies which then can borrow from banks and buy power.”
The then Tamil Nadu electricity minister Natham R Viswanathan had described the scheme as “not people-friendly”. In fact, Jayalalithaa had written a letter to Narendra Modi on October 23, 2015, in which she had pitched ideas about redesigning UDAY to benefit all the stakeholders. However, neither the PM nor union power minister Piyush Goyal got back to the CM.
A senior bureaucrat says that talks were already on with the centre on UDAY. The state had concerns about the clause on the state government’s responsibility of taking over 75 percent of the total debt of discom and fund the losses.
Last month, a delegation of Tamil Nadu officials held a meeting with Goyal in New Delhi, and the two sides reached an understanding. The centre agreed to relax some conditions for Tamil Nadu; the scheme just needs a formal nod from the state cabinet.
“As things stand, it will take a long time for the chief minister to recover. So, there is a big question mark on the future of AIADMK party,” says political commentator BR Haran. “Realising this, BJP, at the centre, is moving cautiously. As far as governance is concerned, the centre will slowly and steadily start influencing. I think the BJP has a good opportunity now. It will certainly utilise it.”
Senior journalist and columnist
R Mani said even as the chief minister has been in hospital for 45 days, the government has taken decisions on important issues. “For both these schemes, Jayalalithaa had raised serious objections. But now the state has decided to go ahead with these. It seems the Modi government has started demanding its pound of flesh,” says Mani.
Opposition DMK spokesperson TKS Elangovan says, “It is surprising that the state government has accepted to join UDAY and implemented NFSA. On both these issues the Tamil Nadu government had a different stand, but now what has happened we don’t know. Whether the state government is functioning on the centre’s pressure or on its own remains a question.”
DMK MLA M Subramanian adds, “As it is the government was not functioning in the previous regime, now it is even worse with the power centre in the hospital. The Modi government has started influencing it.”
Senior Congress leader Sudarsana Natchiappan alleges that taking advantage of Jayalalithaa’s absence, the central government is trying to impose things. “However, the Modi government cannot influence the AIADMK party, as the party is currently under the control of Sasikala,” he adds, referring to Jayalalithaa’s close aide.
(The article appears in the November 16-30, 2016 issue)