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A collective liability

The paramount argument for a comprehensive right to food law is not economic or political. The imperative is ethical, writes Harsh Mander.

india Updated: Nov 28, 2011 00:45 IST
Harsh Mander

The story recurs, again and again. State granaries are full, the economy is resurgent and many of the world's wealthiest people are Indians. Yet grain rots, while one in every two Indian children is unable to access enough food for her body and brain to develop to her full potential. It rots while millions are compelled to subsist for long periods without sufficient food, cutting back on their food intakes, sometimes reduced to eating one meal a day; or to beg for food; or to eat tubers, grasses and mango kernels that fill their stomachs but provide no nutrition; or sometimes just to drink the starch water left over after cooking rice, which their neighbours give them in tight-fisted charity.

No law can in itself end hunger. But it can compel governments to undertake a range of measures to prevent and address hunger. Children need nutrition, through support for breastfeeding in the early years, and supplementary feeding in pre-school centres and schools. Women require maternity benefits, and nutrition support to single women. Aged people need adequate pensions, and some free cooked food in feeding centres. For urban migrants and homeless people, community kitchens offering affordable nutritious food are imperative in thousands in every city. For children lacking adult protection, like street children, a large network of government hostels alone can secure their food. For able bodied men and women, governments must guarantee employment at decent wages in both the countryside and cities; encourage agricultural production and procure farmers' produce at remunerative prices; redistribute land; and reach food to scarcity areas. And critical for all persons is subsidised rice and wheat but also pulses and oilseeds.

The battle, I believe, is not about whether millions of rupees of budgetary resources more or less should be invested in the food and livelihoods of the poor. The battle in the end is between two visions for India. One vision is founded on the belief that the best hope for all people, including the disadvantaged millions, is for governments to efficiently promote and facilitate markets. A resurgent private sector in a globalised economy would create wealth and jobs, and all would be better off in the long run. The other vision for the country rejects growth which excludes millions of our people and condemns them to sink deeper into want, hunger, debt, caste and communal discrimination, and patriarchy. It demands more compassionate economics, one in which 'people matter'. It believes that the State's highest duty is not to promote markets, but to invest in a better life for its disadvantaged citizens.

For those who transact only the language of growth, nutrition could also be seen as investment in people's bodies and minds, which would compound the benefits of India's demographic dividend, with young workers healthier and better fed, and their minds more developed, better equipped to compete in the contemporary global knowledge economy. Progressive economists also remind us that there are alternative growth paths to the dominant economic paradigm of profit-led growth. Fitter workers and more money in their hands could also spur what they call wage-led growth.

But the paramount argument for a comprehensive right to food law is not economic, or even political (that it will generate more votes). The imperative is ethical. Elie Wiesel, Holocaust survivor and Nobel laureate, observed with wisdom that was both grave and weighed down with sadness: 'The opposite of love is not hate. It is indifference.' In a country which for too long is scarred by its absence of outrage about and suffering with desperate inequality, the greatest imperative for a right to food law is to breach our collective indifference. There is a great gaping hole in our collective souls, which we must mend. The people of this ancient land must push into history the enormous silent hopeless agony of generations, over centuries, of the inability to feed one's loved ones and oneself.

In a land in which mammoth wealth and intense destitution have co-existed for millennia, a law that would bind governments to guarantee that no man, woman or child sleeps hungry could be momentous. But the official government draft of the food security bill is disappointingly minimalist.

It is not our claim that a comprehensive law placing such a range of obligations on governments would come cheap in a country of a billion plus people. Economists and planners debate if we can afford the price-tag of a right to food law. I wonder how long we can afford not to pass such a statute, and continue to live indifferent to the untold suffering and injustice of preventable hunger.

The time has come for us to agree in this country on a floor of human dignity below which we will not allow any human being to fall. No child, woman or man in this land will sleep hungry. No person shall be forced to sleep under the open sky. No parent shall send their child out to work instead of to school. And no one shall die because they cannot afford the cost of hospitals and medicine. Can we agree that whatever this costs, we will pay? If accomplishing this requires the need to tax you and me more, so be it. Because not just those who suffer oppression and want, but you and I have a stake, a common stake in leaving to our children and grandchildren a more humane and egalitarian land.

Harsh Mander is a member of the National Advisory Council.The views expressed by the author are personal.

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