Thursday, May 22, 2008

Calculations behind food security scheme

The main weakness of the Left Democratic Front government is its inability to take and implement decisions. This has been in evidence from its early days. Since sectarianism was raging in the Communist Party of India (Marxist) at the time everyone assumed that was what stood in the way of decision-making. The fate of the food security scheme shows that even after the State party secretary emerged stronger and the Chief Minister yielded to the party leadership, the situation has not improved.

When the State Cabinet could not take a decision on the scheme because of differences between the CPI (M), which leads the Front, and the CPI, the second largest party, the matter was referred to the LDF. The issue could not be decided even there. According to reports, there are two hurdles. One relates to mobilization of funds for the scheme. The other relates to responsibility for implementation of the scheme. The CPI (M) wants the money to be found from the budget allocations of the departments of Agriculture and Civil Supplies and the implementation to be supervised by a ministerial committee with the Chief Minister as chairman and Agriculture Minister as convener. Agriculture and Civil Supplies are both under CPI ministers. The CPI argues that separate allocation must be made for the scheme since it cannot be implemented with the budget allocations of the two departments and that the guidelines prepared by the Centre envisage supervision by the Agriculture Minister.

While the scheme remained entangled in controversy, there were reports that the CPI plans to go ahead with its own food security scheme. An English language newspaper reported the other day that a scheme to make the State self-sufficient in rice in three years by bringing at least 10 acres of land in each panchayat under paddy was remaining unimplemented because of lack of cooperation from Agriculture officials and that the panchayat authorities have been instructed to go ahead with it without the help of that department. Some pro-CPI (M) source must be behind that fable. It appears the two parties are trying to bolster their positions using the media.

The arguments of both sides are not fully rational. If the food security scheme is to be implemented with the funds of the Agriculture and Civil Supplies departments, what is the need for a committee headed by the Chief Minister? Although Kerala’s coalition politics and the CPI (M)’s power structure have rendered the Chief Minister weak, he has the power to look into the working of all ministers. If V.S. Achuthanandan is ready to use that power, it is not necessary to form a committee which includes other CPI (M) ministers too. The CPI need not view his intervention as interference in its departments.

Statements attributed to the Finance Minister in some newspaper reports suggest that the CPI (M) is using its hold on the purse to persuade the CPI to fall in line. At one place he said that the CPI alone could not find the funds needed for the scheme. At another place he said that money was no problem.

The State’s food security scheme has to be implemented on the basis of the Food Security Mission approved by the National Development Council last year. For some reason, Kerala was not included in the programme in the first year. If the ruling parties continue to quarrel over it, the State may be bypassed again. If that happens, the responsibility will rest with the Communist parties.

As far as is known, there is no dispute between the CPI (M) and the CPI on the content of the scheme. The only issue is who must be responsible for its implementation. The Centre has created a two-level set-up. There is a general council headed by the Union Agriculture Minister and an executive committee consisting of officials. The Centre envisages an executive committee with the Chief Secretary as the chairman at the State level. A committee of officials is proposed at the district level too.

It is the tendency to view power as an opportunity to dispense favours and build up party strength that prompts the CPI (M) and the CPI compete to take the scheme in their own hands. The Centre’s food security mission is a Rs. 50-billion enterprise. As with the Kudumbashree, the State government may be able to add some things to the Central scheme. Actually, implementation of the scheme is not the responsibility of any particular department. The Centre has suggested the establishment of autonomous bodies under the Societies Registration Act at the State level for the purpose. Central assistance for approved programmes will be made available to these bodies directly.

The Centre’s guidelines regarding utilization of funds also provide opportunities for dispensation of patronage. Of the funds set apart for the scheme, 33% is to be earmarked for marginalized small farmers and women farmers. The Centre has also suggested that money must be provided for the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes in proportion to their population in the district. Given our rulers’ expertise in diversion of funds from one head to another, the extent to which these allocations materialize remains to be seen. Official figures show that Kerala has not fully utilized the funds allotted for agriculture in any of the five-year Plans. The political leadership needs to correct the impression that governance is patronage dispensation.
Based on column “Nerkkazhcha” appearing in Kerala Kaumudi dated May 22, 2008.

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