March 29, 2020
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The Food’s Off The Table

No steps to provide for the Food Security Bill

The Food’s Off The Table

It is disappointing that the government has not taken any steps to provide for the Food Security Bill, which is in Parliament, in this budget. A significant announcement on it was anticipated this year; that would have been the only way to see it roll out in 2012. Now, I think, the government must be bargaining for legal processes to take over, which we know will take some time, before it makes an allocation. That is disappointing—already the official allocation each year for food and public distribution is lower than required, and supplementary demands are raised later in the year to fulfil even the present-day need for food. Another important part of the Food Security Bill is its entitlement of Rs 2,000 as ‘maternity benefits’ to pregnant women, a crucial factor in ensuring healthy births. This alone would require around Rs 15,000 crore, which would have been a valuable investment to make.

There is some positivity in this budget though. The greater-than-ever allocation for sanitation, as also the linkage of nutrition with sanitation and the provision of drinking water, and health and education of women through the ‘multi-sectoral’ programme for 200 poorly-off districts. While such steps are welcome, I don’t agree with the argument that there is not enough to provide for food security. In fact, how much you allocate for food and other basic needs is a function of how much you are willing to raise tax. The understanding in India is that it is a function of the government to make resources available for basic services, so the question—do we have enough to go about doing this?—should not be put off for a later time.

This year, there is a very small overall increase in food subsidy as well. So the question arises: what are we doing to raise revenues to meet these commitments? On the one hand, there is talk of tackling black money. This can only be done through legislative steps followed up with legal action and proactive pursuit of cases of cash transfers and other cross-border transactions. I welcome the budget’s proposal to amend the Income Tax Act to tax capital gains on the transfer of shares of a company whose assets are located in India. More steps like these need to be taken—for instance, it needs to be specified that Indians who own assets abroad will be taxed or penalised if they do not declare their assets abroad. The question that is being asked more and more is how potent the steps being taken to raise resources are. It is not enough to simply have pious intent: we need total control over black money. There are strong legislations and other measures we can bring to both stop the circulation of illicit wealth as well as resnare those who are evading the tax net.

Harsh Mander, a former bureaucrat, is an NAC member

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