Montek reforms: flaunts back-to-universal PDS poll!

Surprise: didn't he always championed cash-for-limited PDS?

prasanna

Prasanna Mohanty | March 13, 2013



Having failed to change India for the past nine years as deputy chairman of the planning commission and the main brain behind prime minister Manmohan Singh’s reformist agenda, Montek Singh Ahluwalia has finally decided to change himself. He has decided to join the camp of Jean Dreze, Aruna Roy and Harsh Mander.

If this sounds outlandish, just visit http://12thplan.gov.in/, a website hosted by the planning commission to showcase Montek’s brand new 12th five-year plan. Bang in the middle of the page is an invitation to participate in an opinion poll. If nothing else, the question is a dead giveaway: Should the public distribution system be universalized again?

If that won’t do for you, this one will. Go ahead and click either ‘yes’ or ‘no’. We did today afternoon and boom! Of 18,739 votes polled, an overwhelming majority – 14,507 votes or 77.42 percent of votes polled – are saying ‘yes’ to going back to the days of universal PDS. Only 4,232 voters (or 22.58 percent) are saying ‘no’.

The verdict is absolutely clear, as far as opinion polls go, and by showcasing it prominently on the official website of the planning commission, Montek has spoken and how!

Those who have followed the food security debate know how Montek almost singlehandedly derailed the attempt by NAC (headed by no less than UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi) to draft a bill to provide for a near-universal coverage in 2010 by raising the bogey of mounting subsidy.

Jean Dreze had to walk out in protest saying, “An opportunity has been missed to initiate a radical departure in this field. The NAC proposals are a great victory for the government – they allow it to appear to be doing something radical for food security, but it is actually “more of the same”. The planning commission had estimated a subsidy burden of Rs 94,973 crore. Thereafter, the government diluted the draft further to propose 75 percent coverage in rural and 50 percent coverage in urban areas.

Montek displayed the doggedness more suited to Dreze, Roy and Mander and told the apex court in an affidavit subsequently that he was sticking to the Tendulkar committee definition of the BPL families - per capita per day expenditure of Rs 15 in rural and Rs 18 in urban areas at 2004 prices, which was inflation-proofed to 2010 by increasing it to Rs 26 and Rs 32, respectively.

Which meant he would stick to the Targeted PDS, food security bill or no. Though, quite ironically, it was he who had authored a planning commission report in 2005 that said after universal PDS was converted to T-PDS in 1997, the leakages went up to 58 percent.

To be fair to Montek though, he has been changing. The first indication came when he changed his tune in the presence of Amartya Sen at a seminar in New Delhi on February 15. Sen of course has been asking for universal coverage of health, education and food to improve our living conditions and make our growth sustainable. Montek surprised many by saying there: “I don’t think the government or anyone else should say that we can’t afford the food subsidy because of the fiscal deficit… that would be actually dishonest.” Since then, he has been saying subsidy should be cut but in the area of fuel and fertilizer, not in food.

Unfortunately, his change of heart has found few takers. One prominent right-to-food campaigner says, on the condition of anonymity, that since Montek is a great believer of cash-for-subsidy regime (he has been pleading for conditional cash transfers in place of food for long) he may be thinking of universalisation of cash-for-food, rather than universalisation food supply through PDS.

Have we read him wrong? If yes, hmm… that would be sad.

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