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Binayak Sen offers food for thought at Kovalam Lit Fest

As he addressed the audience at Kovalam Lit Fest, social activist Binayak Sen called for changes in the Food Security Bill to ensure food for all and battle the problems of hunger and starvation.

books Updated: Oct 08, 2012 14:01 IST

India needs to revive indigenous traditions of growing food and "privilege community-based" food storage and distribution to battle the problems of hunger and starvation, noted social activist Binayak Sen.

Sen called for changes in the Food Security Bill to ensure food for all. "Once the Food Security Bill becomes an Act, instead of taking us further towards food security, it will take us several steps backwards," Sen contended, as he addressed the audience at the K.C. John Memorial Lecture in Thiruvanthapuram at the opening of the Kovalam Literary Festival.

"The process of categorisation, which has bedeviled the existing PDS (Public Distribution System), will be much more complex and liable to misuse in the Act. The amount of grain available may be significantly smaller. Moreover the entire process of grain distribution may in the end be replaced by cash transfer systems," Sen said.

Sen, a trained paediatrician who has long worked in Chhattisgarh and campaigned for the health of tribals there, is the national vice-president of the People's Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL).

Sen was arrested on charges of sedition by the Chhattisgarh government for allegedly aiding Naxalites and granted bail in 2011.

"For the last twenty years in India, we have been functioning in a regime that specifically repudiates constitutional injunctions for economic justice and equity embodied in the Directive Principles of State Policy, and valorizes the argument that having the rich get richer and the poor get poorer is good for the economy," Sen said.

He said "India needed to build a society that privileges equity in food, of course, but also in living together peacefully".

Sen pointed out that there is no real scarcity of grain in the country. "As I have already pointed out, starvation has been occurring in a regime in which there is an abundance of grain - in what is known as the green revolution."

"This so-called revolution is the result of the concentrated subsidized application of exogenous energy in the form of synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, water, and logistical inputs in the form of mechanical tillage, transport and storage, to grow almost exclusively rice and wheat," Sen said.

He said the entire effort has "resulted in the devastation of the indigenous traditions of low input sustainable agriculture, devastated our soils and not only exhausted our ground water but contaminated what water there is in the ground with widespread contaminants like arsenic and fluoride".

Sen lashed out at the abysmal state of nutrition in the country, quoting a survey by the Nandi Foundation, which had conducted an assessment of children's nutritional status which found that around 44 per cent of all under-five children it surveyed in several states in the country were malnourished.

Sen, known for his sympathy with the radical Left, analysed the food situation in the country in the context of the 1943 Bengal famine that killed millions.

"We would do well to look at some recent history. Three million people died in the 1943 famine. I heard stories about that famine from my mother, as did many middle class Bengalis of my age. There was no shortage of grain in Bengal in 1943, just as there is no shortage of grain in India today - indeed, there is so much excess grain that the government is hard put to store it so it does not rot," he said.

"The point I am trying to make here is that famines, and, by extension, the other major human rights abuses that go on and on in our country and around the world, do not just happen on their own account. They are perpetrated as the result of policies that privilege the rich and powerful, and, by implication, harm the poor and disenfranchised," he said.

First Published: Oct 08, 2012 13:57 IST