The Siddaramaiah government in Karnataka, after pointlessly trying to blame the Centre for not giving it rice from the central pool for free distribution, has correctly decided to pay cash amounting to Rs 170 per head per month instead of the promised 5 kg of rice.
The Centre was right to refuse the Karnataka demand, given the possibility, even probability, of a weak monsoon this year.
Depleting existing stocks of rice (around 26 million tonnes currently), when kharif production could be lower than hoped for, would be foolish when food prices are anyway elevated. And it does not matter whether or not the current stocks are higher than the prescribed minimum buffer of 13.5 million tonnes.
In the event of a crop failure, it is not only Karnataka, but every other state, that will be drawing on central stocks to feed the poor. And market prices will surely rise if traders and growers suspect that a shortage looms.
So, no, Karnataka was not entitled to any special supply of rice from the central pool, and that too for free distribution.
However, the idea of giving cash instead of a bag of rice is good in itself. For three reasons.
First, cash in hand gives beneficiaries the choice of using it for other purposes, including education of children and healthcare.
Second, payments in kind often end up distorting the market, as the recipient often sells the same rice for cash. So, it is far better to give the cash directly than to force the beneficiary to encash the freebie in the market.
Third, cash changes the nature of the benefactor-beneficiary relationship. It makes the beneficiary a consumer, while benefits given in kind reduce you to a supplicant. You can only consume the rice you are given or sell it; cash empowers you to do what you want with it.
Cash gives you more power and dignity than a free bag of rice handed over to you from a ration shop.
Sometimes, good solutions flow from the failure of bad ideas.
Jagannathan is Editorial Director, Swarajya. He tweets at @TheJaggi.
An appeal from Swarajya
At Swarajya, we rely on our readers' support through subscriptions to sustain our media platform. Unlike larger conglomerates, we are unable to relentlessly chase advertising money — our model is largely built on your patronage.
Your support has never been more crucial. We work tirelessly to deliver 10-15 high-quality articles daily, ensuring you receive insightful content from 7 AM to 10 PM.
If you believe India's story has to be articulated in a way it has never been done before without shrugging it off, become a patron (or) subscribe now for ₹̶2̶4̶0̶0̶ ₹1999 and get 12 print issues, unlimited digital access for 1 year, a special India that is Bharat T-shirt (Offer ends soon).
We are counting on you!