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What’s eating us

As you know, the government is planning a Right to Food Act to ensure that nobody in the country goes hungry. We must, however, consider the tremendous complexity of the issue, writes Manas Chakravarty.

india Updated: Jan 31, 2010 01:55 IST
Manas Chakravarty

As you know, the government is planning a Right to Food Act to ensure that nobody in the country goes hungry. We must, however, consider the tremendous complexity of the issue.

It’s true that immediately after Independence nobody paid much attention to the Right to Food, our energies being mostly taken up with enforcing the right not to be massacred by one’s neighbours. There was also the belief that since a policy of frequent fasting had freed us from the British, hunger was rather ethical.

But as soon as we started the task of nation-building, our leaders started debating how to feed the masses. The Right to Food was fine, but the key question was: what kind of food? In his secret unpublished volume, Discovery of India-The Scary Sequel, Pandit Nehru summed up his dilemma admirably. “Although I was wholly sympathetic to the idea of a Right to Food,” he wrote, “its practical application was delayed after I had a nightmare in which hordes of people lined up at the gates of my residence, all of them clamouring for chicken vindaloo.”

Those in the know say the programme was also stymied by Krishna Menon’s insistence that under the Hindi-Chini bhai bhai policy, we should import noodles from China. After an experiment in forcing noodles down the throats of recalcitrant villagers in Barabanki failed miserably, the programme had to be reluctantly abandoned. Rules also needed to be drawn up about the timing of the demands. For instance, does a child who feels hungry at midnight have a right to wake up the district commissioner and demand chicken butter masala?

The matter was resolved by deciding that only uncooked food would be issued. This created a furore, with many pointing out that money is needed to cook the food. One activist group argued that if uncooked food was to be doled out, the masses would also need to a Right to Cooking Oil, A Right to Cooking Gas and a Right to Salt and Masala Act. The problem was resolved by the government of the day promising to supply free recipes, a promise that has sadly not been kept.

But even the proposal to supply dal and flour has not been free from controversy. Some state governments want rice, others oats and some of them potatoes. Dieticians urged the government to supply wheatgrass, whole grains and nuts. Some wanted Kellogg’s Special K cereal.

Alarmed by the logistics involved, economists have proposed giving cash instead of food, enabling people to buy the minimum calories they need. But that suggestion was shot down because people could use the cash to get drunk instead. “We still don’t have a Right to Drink Act,” said an activist wistfully. The hungry masses, however, are all for cash. “How does it matter if we take in the calories in solid or liquid form?” queried a hungry mass.

Ideological differences have also played a role. Leftists are looking at philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach’s assertion ‘Man is what he eats’ and pondering its implications for a Mumbai working class brought up on potato vada. The BJP wonders what the ancient sages ate and whether those items could be supplied under the Right to Food Act. Luckily though, the Congress has kept an open mind on the subject, apart from a tendency to support pasta and lasagna.

So now you see why, 62 years after the country became independent, they still haven’t been able to figure out how to feed the hungry.

Manas Chakravarty is Consulting Editor, Mint

(The views expressed by the author are personal)