One of the major issues being debated in Parliament at this time is the food security Bill that aims to end hunger and malnutrition in the country. The discussion focuses chiefly on the issue of funding and the application modalities of the proposed law. More important and fundamental questions pertaining to the rationale behind the proposed legislation are being neglected. For a scheme that plans to spend R1,30,000 crore of public money annually, it is imperative that the public and the Parliament alike see beyond the obvious and raise questions as to the efficacy and necessity of the same.
There are people who may be unable to provide for their own nutrition, like the infirm, the aged, orphans and people with severe physical or mental disabilities. It is legitimate to expect the State to make provisions for their basic material wellbeing, and we do have laws and schemes in place to help address the issue. But for people who are able to earn their own livelihood it is the State's duty to create conditions that will enable them to do so. To provide food to them without engaging them in safe and fair labour would be wasteful for the State and pernicious to the beneficiaries.
The task of creating a just labour market accessible to all classes and sections of the people may be difficult. But to skirt around the difficulty by taking the short cut of doling out food cannot be good, in the long run, either for society or the economy. Moreover, if the State undertakes to ensure that all the extant laws and schemes meant for the welfare of the weak and the marginal run effectively and without the canker of corruption, the need for a blanket food security scheme would be eradicated.
The prime minister has termed mass malnutrition a national shame. Indeed it is, but the proposed Bill may not be an adequate means to eradicate that 'shame'. For one, it focuses chiefly on food grains and, as we know, grains are not enough to provide the various 'trace elements' a human body needs in order to first grow and then maintain itself in optimal health. Besides, apart from the issue of diet there are other ground-level factors that affect nutrition and even survival.
To begin with, a country where 70% of rural households do not have toilets cannot dream of achieving general good health, the objective of 'nutrition'. In the circumstances, regular administering of anti-ringworm drugs to rural children would enhance their health significantly.
Similarly, greater access to safe drinking water and improved drainage systems in villages and small towns would contribute toward improving public health. Ensuring quality primary healthcare within reasonable distance of each village would minimise preventable deaths due to common illnesses or snake bites.
The recent National Sample Survey has thrown up staggering statistics about impoverished girl children dying in
early childhood due to inadequate nutrition stemming from parental
biases against girls. A large number of
our young women suffer from poor
heath or even die as a result of early and multiple pregnancies.
Clearly, a sound public health policy, vigilant administration of basic healthcare and extant welfare schemes, sustained mass awareness programmes and intense work at the grass-root level are vital to enhance levels of nutrition and fitness among people.
There can be no short cuts to these. The food security bill, if rightly targeted and implemented, could be useful in preventing death by hunger till such time as starvation level poverty is removed. But to the question of ensuring holistic national health it is not the right answer.
Suparna Banerjee a researcher and writer based in Kolkata
The views expressed by the author are personal