Taking forward its ‘aam aadmi’ agenda through policies like the Food Security Bill, the Congress-led UPA government at the Centre looks set to pursue more such policies after the UP polls. In fact, sops announced in the run up to the Assembly polls like the financial package for handloom weavers that will result in a financial burden of Rs 6,303 crore to the government will have to be implemented. With such populist measures costing the government dearly, bureaucrats at North Block are a worried lot, as they grapple with the task of containing a rising fiscal deficit.
According to Congress sources, with a better performance for the party in UP being a foregone conclusion, more such popular policies will be pedalled out. A National Advisory Council (NAC) member, speaking to Business Standard, said the Council had already been deliberating on an entire range of policy initiatives for the poor and the disadvantaged, but the model code of conduct makes it difficult for them to speak openly about it at present. Some of the policies the NAC is working on include schemes for street vendors, the urban poor and tribal groups.
Significantly, the much-hyped Food Security Bill — a pet project of Sonia Gandhi-led NAC and which the Congress has even committed in its poll manifesto — is likely to push up the subsidy by Rs 27,663 crore by conservative estimates. While Gandhi’s ‘big ticket’ policy was opposed by agriculture minister Sharad Pawar initially, citing financial difficulty, it was ultimately pushed through keeping in mind the crucial Assembly elections in UP. The legislation will enable priority households seven kg of rice, wheat and coarse grains to per person per month at Rs 3, Rs 2 and Rs 1 a kg respectively.
In the run up to the polls, the financial package for handloom weavers in UP that will set back the government by Rs 6,234 crore was announced by textiles minister Anand Sharma. Congress leader Rahul Gandhi’s famed Bundelkhand package for drought mitigation has a total outlay of Rs 3,606 crore for use over three years.
What was a one time specific need measure has now become a template for further dole outs. The Congress has now gone ahead and promised a series of packages for other “backward regions” in the state such as Mirzapur, Sonbhadra and Chandauli, based on the Bundelkhand package model.
Political sociologist Dipankar Gupta speaking to Business Standard said, “These initiatives are effective as one time ‘relief measures’ to alleviate a crisis situation. The problem arises when instead of being discontinued after some time they are retained as perennial policy.”
Gupta argues that such relief measures have to be backed by sound government policies which will make such measures unnecessary in the long run. For instance loan waivers for farmers are needed as a one time relief measure. “If it is backed by bank loans for agricultural inputs like investments in sprinkler irrigation systems, then the need for loan waivers will not arise. After all, these are not development programmes and governments cannot hand out doles forever,” said Gupta. “As a relief measure such initiatives are tenable when they cause a temporary dent in fiscal planning but not as long term policies,” he added.