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Too little, too late

The Food Bill can bridge India's rich-poor divide. But the middle class, impatient with the welfare State, sees redistributive justice as undeserved charity. Harsh Mander writes.

india Updated: Dec 25, 2011 22:21 IST

If we get it right, the Food Security Bill carries the potential to alter the destinies of millions of India's poor and disadvantaged people, by assuring them as a legal right sufficient food to live with dignity. It was approved by the Cabinet after over two years of intense, sometimes fractious debate. Opinion in the Cabinet itself was reportedly divided around the proposed law. Gaping divisions persist, even as the debates now shift to Parliament, campaigns, the media and the people. The discussions around this proposed law hold up a mirror to unequal India, an India comfortable for too long with this inequality. The shape of the law which finally emerges will influence the course of this land for many years to come.

When Brazil introduced a law with similar ambitions in 2003, its President Lula da Silva spoke stirringly to his people of the intolerable situation in their country, in which some people eat nothing and others have too much food. He called for a collective resolve to change this forever, to build a more humane and equal Brazil. For his Zero Hunger Project, he created an Extraordinary Ministry for Food Security and Fight against Hunger. Food became his government's highest priority.

In India, why have we not been able to muster a similar political priority for the fight against hunger? Why are the discussions in government, the Cabinet and significant sections of the media focused mainly on the costs - real, exaggerated and alarmist - of the proposed entitlements, and not on the imperative for such a law? Do we not believe we must end the injustice that rapid economic growth and great wealth accumulation have not reversed a situation where every second child is malnourished, almost one in five severely, and 80 to 200 million people sleep hungry?

It is no one's case that a law for public provisioning of food to food insecure populations would come cheap, in a country of a billion plus people. But is the additional budgetary demand of Rs 25,000 crore for expanding the Public Distribution System (PDS) unacceptable for the world's second-fastest growing economy, which does not hesitate to set aside more than Rs 5 lakh crore in every budget as 'revenues foregone' for private industry, and enormous allocations for defence? There are legitimate concerns also about administrative capacity of the State to implement this law. But the creation of legal entitlements will compel the State to create the infrastructure and institutional arrangements necessary to deliver these entitlements, as happened both in the Right to Education and Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act.

The strengths of the proposed law are that it guarantees meals to children up to the age of 14, pregnant women and destitute, starving and homeless persons. For the first time, it ensures a monthly allowance of Rs 1,000 for six months to pregnant and nursing mothers, to enable them to eat better, and breastfeed their children. It accords migrants and their families the right to access their food entitlements anywhere in the country. Ration cards are in the name of adult women, who are heads of families under this law.

The real problem with the Cabinet draft Bill is not that it attempts too much but precisely the opposite, that it baulks and hedges and in the end promises too little. It does not guarantee food to children who are not in schools, nor pensions for the aged. Malnutrition and starvation require much more than a meal, but all these State duties have been erased from the government draft. It has too many exit clauses. In situations of natural calamity, duties under the Act cease. Cash is permissible instead of food, and packaged mixtures instead of hot cooked meals.

After nationwide outrage with the minimalist Tendulkar poverty line, the Union government recently promised to delink food entitlements from any poverty line. But contrarily, these are back in the Bill (the priority groups are the Tendulkar poverty-line plus 10%). Only households identified by government are entitled to subsidised food, with a complicated graded set of entitlements. This was a limitation of the draft negotiated by the NAC, aggravated further in the official draft. The Left parties and the Right-to-Food campaign have long argued for universal entitlements for subsidised food, because any targeting tends to exclude the poor. After the exclusion of rich large-landed households, it would make sense to offer all rural households common entitlements.

The Bill also excludes any guarantees for farmers, who are ironically among our most food-insecure populations. It would be fitting to include a legal guarantee for a minimum support price to all farmers as part of the Food Bill, to protect farmers' livelihoods, and spur agricultural production. The farm sector has too long been in the dark shadows of India's growth story.

In the Food Bill, we have a chance to bridge the unconscionable gaps between India's rich and poor. But will we do it? In one TV debate on the Food Bill in which I participated, the anchor asked, 'How long should the middle class subsidise the poor?' Incidentally, it is actually the poor who subsidise the middle classes, by supplying services and goods at dirt cheap wages. Perhaps the anchor was being the devil's advocate. But he did reflect a growing middle class impatience with the welfare State. Like the 'merit' argument against reservations, privilege is transformed in this new ethics of our times into deserved entitlement, and redistributive justice into undeserved charity.

Harsh Mander is director, Centre for Equity Studies.

The views expressed by the author are personal.