Most dishonest of all is the “there-is-no-money” line. The country spends Rs. 10,000 crore on a new airport. There's Rs. 40,000 crore or more for the Commonwealth Games. There's Rs. 60,000 crore happily lost in the spectrum scam. There's Rs. 500,000 crore in write-offs under just three heads for the super-rich and the corporate sector in the current Union budget. But funds for the hungry are hard to come by. What would it cost to universalise the PDS? Pravin Jha and Nilachal Acharya estimate that if rice/wheat were made available to all Indians at Rs. 3 a kilo, it would add Rs.84,399 crore to the food subsidy in coming budgets. That's about one-sixth of the tax write-offs for the wealthy in this year's budget. (Other estimates place the added expenditure each year at no more than Rs. 45,000 crore).
A disclosure: I was a member of the BPL Expert Group. In a note annexed to that report, I argued that in four sectors — food, healthcare, education and decent work — access had to be universal. That flows from the Directive Principles of State Policy of the Constitution. The rights of our people are based on their being citizens. Not on their ability to pay. Not on their being BPL or APL (or even IPL). Rights, by definition, are universal and indivisible.
Will the features of the government's proposed food security bill take the Directive Principles forward? Or will it weaken them? Diluting constitutional rights and presenting the watered down mix as progressive legislation is fraud. The only PDS that will work is a universal one. It is only in those States that have the closest thing to a universal system — Kerala and Tamil Nadu — where the PDS has functioned best.