Debating Hunger on a Full Stomach

When heads shake disapprovingly at the passing of the Food Security Bill, they’re usually attached to comfortably full stomachs. The bill is populist. It’s timing, just before the elections, is strategically important for an ailing Congress government. Ensuring that the teeming masses in India are given a right to food — possibly the most basic right there is — is expensive. But to say it’s unwarranted, or worse, a mistake is to grossly marginalize the voice of those who are starving in our country.

According to the World Bank, undernourished and underweight children in India is almost double that of sub-Saharan Africa. The recent furor about the Mid-Day meal scheme has only highlighted the ways in which existing government schemes to ensure food for children is inadequate. In such a situation, not only is a Food Security Bill relevant, it is in fact absolutely essential.

One of the greatest criticisms of the bill is that it is wasteful and a pre-election grand gesture which plays out carefully to voters who’ll benefit from the bill. The idea is that the money spent on the bill — an estimated Rs 1.3 lakh crore (22 billion dollars) — could be spent better elsewhere. What such criticism doesn’t take into account is the incredible extent of poverty and malnutrition in the country. “It is important to see this not as a mere undeserving dole, but rather as an investment in ensuring that the working people of this country are well-fed, which is critical both for their productivity and their morale,” wrote Harsh Mander, director at Centre for Equity Studies in an article in HT recently.

Forty two years before Sonia Gandhi made her sure-to-be historic speech in the parliament terming the bill a ‘historic step’, her mother-in-law had made a similar cry for abolishing poverty and the Congress won a landslide victory. The cry for abolishing poverty used by Rajiv Gandhi and now Sonia, apart from underscoring the potential electoral dividend of pro-poor reforms in our country also highlights the difficulty of the task at hand. But it’s better than nothing at all, argues economist Amartya Sen. “I would rather have it than nothing at all. I did think that there probably are better alternatives because you could do much better nutritional planning than they’ve done in the food security bill. But will it on its own solve the development problem? Not at all. Will it help? Yes,” he said in an interview.

The bill promises to ensure that up to 75% of the rural population and 50% of the urban population will get 5 Kg of food grain monthly. The poorest in the country will continue their monthly entitlement of 35 kg of food grain. States will have the responsibility of deciding eligibility criteria. The Bill will also entitle around 80 million of India’s 1.2 billion population to subsidised food grain under the Targeted Public Distribution System.

Pregnant women and lactating mothers would receive a maternity benefit of at least Rs 6,000 while children aged six months to 14 years will get take home rations or cooked food. Meanwhile, the oldest woman of the household will be considered the head of that household while issuing ration cards.

Another criticism of the bill, and rightly so, is of the problem of corruption. Opposition leaders have pointed out that the bill will have its legs shot off by corrupt middle men who will inevitably steal. The checks that have been put in to prevent this unfortunate eventuality will be bypassed. But to say that a bill is flawed, in a country where high-profile defence deals are infected by corruption, is rather reductive.

The sad truth is that the entire spectrum of the Indian system (administrative, government, legislative and judicial) is corrupt. To weed out corruption is a monumental task that the entire nation faces. But to shoot a potentially life-saving bill (and it will save lives) because of corruption is rather pointless. “But it is no one’s case that because of corruption, we should place an embargo on defence purchases, or on developing our cities, or on mining coal. Then why should we selectively apply corruption as a reason to veto investing public resources only for programmes for the poor? It is hoped that the pressures created by the food security law, and democratic mobilisation around it, will place pressure for incremental improvements in the PDS over time in all states, in the way that the MGNREGA, the RTE and the RTI laws have done,” wrote Mander.

While food worth nearly Rs 60,000 crore is destroyed each year as a result of poor and insufficient storage facilities; and grains worth far more are sold off in the international market at extremely low prices, countless malnourished citizens of this country continue to die of hunger. The bill as it stands today is far from perfect, but we must welcome its passing in the Lok Sabha as a first step in the institutionalization of a right that is perhaps most basic for survival. Political machinations and games aside, there is a lot yet to achieve in ridding the country of hunger and the Food Security Bill is a crucial move in that direction.

The article was first published in Newsyaps in August 2013. The website has since shut down.