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Food security bill will be a game changer

The abject poverty that I came across during a visit to one village in Rajasthan was like a punch in the gut. I still haven't forgotten the misery of the people there and my own guilt at my ability to fill my stomach at least three times a day without having to wonder about my next meal. Sujata Anandan writes.

columns Updated: Aug 27, 2013 16:29 IST
Sujata Anandan

Many years ago, when India was still in the grip of the licence-permit-quota Raj, I remember travelling to Rajasthan.

The abject poverty that I came across during a visit to one village was like a punch in the gut and I still have not forgotten the misery of the people there and my own guilt at my ability to fill my stomach at least three times a day without having to wonder where my next meal might be coming from.

I was travelling with a lot of food and my own canteen of boiled water to avoid having to eat at unhygienic places. When some children came running across to us to see if the visitors had any goodies on them, I dived into my bag and took out an unopened packet of biscuits.

The child, I handed it to, was delighted but I was unprepared for the subsequent reaction of his mother.

She hurried across to where we were standing and snatched the already half-eaten packet of biscuits away from her son. I recoiled as she hissed at me very angrily.

Before I could retreat, she had caught hold of my arm and was shaking it violently. I apologised thinking it was an urban concern that children should not accept food from strangers.

But what she then said left me completely stunned and I have never forgotten the look in her eyes. She was not angry but deeply disappointed. “If you had food to give, you could have given that packet of biscuits to me.

I would have fed them to my older son. It was not his (the younger son’s) turn to eat today,” she said pointing to the child to whom I had handed the biscuits.

“I fed him only yesterday. Now my older son will have to go hungry until I can find something to fill his stomach.”

What she said was incredible and unbelievable but it was then that I discovered how the poor really lived, foraging for food through the day and going without it for more than a day or two as they attempted to assuage their children’s hunger.

I wonder if it is families like these, and I am sure many still exist even in a liberal economy, that Union minister for agriculture Sharad Pawar was thinking of when he said he was against the National Food Security Bill.

Though he did not oppose the Bill completely, he argued that it would turn its beneficiaries ‘lazy’ and encourage them not to work for a living.

Pawar was at an annual grape growers’ show in Pune last weekend and I recalled how several years ago at a similar event he had advocated the sale of wines from supermarkets rather than liquor stores so that more people are encouraged to buy wines.

He also came up with a bizarre statement that there was wheat shortage in the country as south and northeast Indians, traditionally rice eaters, were now eating more chapatis.

Then again he had professed that even mothers’ milk is adulterated.

Now Pawar is couching his opposition in concern for farmers as he feels that if the government secures food grains at cheaper rates, the market price of the crops will go down and this will subsequently hurt the farmer community.

I do no claim to be an expert on food economics and have not studied the food security Bill but I wonder if any government can dare to diddle out the poor farmer of his legitimate earnings to feed the poor elsewhere in the country.

I believe that the tonnes of food grains that rot in warehouses will find good use once given to the poor at affordable prices. How much we might have to subsidise the scheme with the taxes that we pay is quite a different issue.

However, I would rather subsidise food for the poor than gold for the rich as is happening today.

I have been speaking to both the urban poor and people from the rural areas about the food security Bill and I have realised why all political parties and leaders like Pawar and Narendra Modi are afraid of the scheme.

Some of the urban poor do think of it as a freebie but in the backward areas, food continues to be at a premium and they continue to go to bed hungry.

The food security Bill is clearly going to be a game changer in this country and I am not even talking about the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. But, yes, the poor tend to be grateful and remember their benefactors.

That can never be understood by those who have never had to go to bed hungry.