India has long been simultaneously a country of enormous wealth and desperate poverty. In recent decades, the distance has only grown between those who enjoy living standards comparable to the finest in the world, and the millions left far behind. Even as Indians crowd the lists of the world’s richest dollar billionaires, an estimated 200 million people sleep hungry. Half our children are malnourished and nearly a fifth severely so. This means starkly that their brains and bodies can’t develop because they lack adequate nourishment.
Today the country produces sufficient food, and if it chooses, the government can afford to spend what it takes to reach this food to each of its billion-plus people. But for this to happen, the government must first believe that this is where it should spend its money. Economists caution the government that it must restrain public spending, that it should invest in promoting work rather than distribute food, and that cheap or free food will disincentivise farmers from production. I wish that at such times economists think more from their hearts and pay heed to an alternative ‘economics as if people matter’.
The key word in today’s world is ‘investment’. But what better investment can there be than in our people? Our demographic dividend will multiply manifold if young people were nourished sufficiently to grow to their full physical and intellectual potential. A legal guarantee of reaching food to all will require the government to purchase the produce of all farmers at remunerative prices wherever they offer it. This will protect farmers from the uncertainties of price fluctuations. At present, the government purchases most of its grain from two-and-a-half states: Punjab, Haryana and western Uttar Pradesh. A food guarantee will require the government to penetrate its procurement to all parts of the country, and thereby extend a safety net to farmers as well. This will be the best incentive for them to produce more. And if people have to spend less on food, they can invest on other needs, which again could spur growth.
But the key argument for a legal food guarantee is not economic, or even political (that it will fetch votes). It is, above all, a moral imperative: to end the enormous suffering associated with the inability to feed one’s children, and to fill one’s stomach. In many years of work among people who live with hunger, I have witnessed destitute people cutting back to eating just one meal a day or consuming poisonous tubers and grasses only because these come free. And hunger generates desperate choices — offering oneself in bondage, sending small children out to work, distress migration and accepting oppression.
The first claim of a Right to Food legislation would be of these people who routinely live — and die — of hunger. The greatest numbers are of children. Therefore, the law must guarantee supplementary nutrition to every child below the age of six and free school meals to all older children. It must ensure facilities to prevent and effectively treat severe malnutrition. Pregnant and nursing mothers should similarly be guaranteed both supplementary nutrition, as well as maternity benefits and crèches at workplaces to enable them to breastfeed their children and rest.
Apart from children, I have encountered the greatest hunger among destitute people, mainly households without any able-bodied male member — single women and their dependents, the abandoned aged, disabled people, households of persons with tuberculosis, leprosy and HIV/Aids — and the homeless. I believe that the law must guarantee to all such destitute persons who seek it, at least one free hot cooked meal daily. In the past, free feeding was organised by religious charities but they have declined drastically with modernity. The State must fill the vacuum — as it indeed is done in many parts of the world. Such people must also be guaranteed pensions. Starvation deaths are also endemic among the most vulnerable tribal and Dalit communities like Musahars and Sahariyas. They require intensive food coverage. Urban homeless people and migrants require not free but affordable food in community canteens.
Apart from special food and pension guarantees for these most-disadvantaged people, the law should guarantee subsidised food to a much larger population, ideally to all or most households. The cheapest food must be for the destitute, to Scheduled Castes and Tribes, landless agricultural workers, small farmers, artisans, fisher-folk, homeless people and slum residents. But food deprivation and malnourishment extends far beyond the numbers, which the government economists identify to be poor. If the government purchases food at remunerative prices from farmers across the country, there will be much more available to distribute. This grain should be offered to all people who seek it at half the price at which the government purchases the grain from farmers. It would then be possible to actually cover all or most households with affordable food.
If we get the Food Rights Bill right, it can change India. The National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS) altered the destiny of millions by guaranteeing them work. This law can create not one but many such legally enforceable guarantees, of direct feeding, pensions, maternity entitlements and subsidised food. Another India — where children are not stunted because there is no food; and where grain does not rot when people sleep hungry — would then become a reality. Food is essential for life and, thereby, citizenship. Surely, no price tag or limits can be imposed on life and citizenship.
Harsh Mander is Director, Centre for Equity Studies The views expressed by the author are personal