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Let us place hope first

The government's biggest election gamble faces misplaced criticism. It's not just about food but how it should reach the plates of the poor. Samar Halarnkar writes.

columns Updated: May 08, 2013 21:28 IST
Samar Halarnkar,hindustan times,news

The saddest part of India's inadequately receding tide of poverty usually washes up as human detritus at quieter traffic intersections across our vast, crummy cities.

In Mumbai, diffident farmers from the drying interiors of the country's most industrialised state mutely hold out their hands. In Delhi, tribal migrants from Rajasthan, still in their traditional earrings and dirty turbans and dhotis blackened by soot and dust, hawk boxes of tissues and the latest Chinese trinkets. Tribals now show up in Bangalore and Hyderabad as well, eating bits of chapatti and gruel in parks, when they aren't begging or selling automobile sun screens. The worst-off are the old women, abandoned widows or wives trying to cobble together change for infirm husbands. That begging does not come easily to them is obvious from the distance at which they stand from vehicles and their immediate, silent escape after rejection.

One thing stands out in conversations with the destitute: the focus on Rs 10 or Rs 20. Depending on the city, this sum buys a meal. It could be a roti and a watery dal (Delhi) or four idlis with chutney (Bangalore). In referring to the destitute at traffic intersections, I do not include children and adults, maimed or intact, who are part of begging rackets at intersections in prime areas - my argument to those who dismiss all beggars as being part of organised rackets is this: Even if they are so syndicated, it takes a certain desperation to subject oneself to mutilation or indignity.

It is hard to believe that the visibly destitute, the traffic-intersection people, were to be left out of the Food Security Bill, introduced on Monday to Opposition discomfort in a Parliament trying to pin down the government on the latest scandals of corruption and ministerial malfeasance. Thanks to relentless pressure from a small band of activists, but primarily from former National Advisory Council member Harsh Mander, who lobbied successfully with UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi, the government hastily reintroduced into the Bill a previously deleted proposal for destitute-feeding centres. It is unlikely that the truly destitute, between 24 to 50 million people, according to one estimate, can buy the 5 kg of foodgrain (rice at Rs 3 per kg, wheat at Rs 2 and coarse grains at Re 1) due to them monthly once the Bill becomes a legally enforceable 'right' to food. They are outside the ambit of the Public Distribution System - the world's largest project to give out subsidised food - and although the Unique Identification project will attempt to provide identities to the destitute and homeless, it's unclear when.

Many economists and corporate leaders criticise the Bill as a grand handout for about 800 million people. It will balloon already inefficient and possibly unsustainable subsidies. The estimated annual cost of the Bill - about Rs 1.23 lakh crore, or about Rs 23,000 crore more than present spending on subsidised food - would be better spent, they argue, on infrastructure to spur slackening growth, the ultimate poverty fix.

Certainly, these are arguments with fiscal merit. What they fail to acknowledge is that (a) 20 years of growth has not lifted enough people out of poverty; (b) community safety nets are disappearing as farming recedes and urbanisation grows; and (c) even if big reforms and new infrastructure - if they happen, and when they take effect - spur fresh growth, the ensuing growth is likely be more jobless than it's ever been.

Clearly, there is more misery ahead, and various studies have shown that in times of distress, families first cut back on food, the lack of which has a cascading effect on learning, health, productivity and growth. This is evident across categories of low-income households, for whom the ability to buy cheap food is essential to not just surviving but moving up. Moreover, middle- and upper-class India owes its drivers, servants, waiters and other nameless benefactors an economic debt.

The 'working poor', as they are approvingly termed, are in fact major philanthropists, writes the American author Barbara Ehrenreich in her illuminating book, Nickel and Dimed, a chronicle of her experiences as a low-wage worker. "They neglect their own children so that the children of others will be cared for; they live in substandard housing so that other homes will be shiny and perfect; they endure privation so that inflation will be low and stock prices high."

In the emerging world, economic growth needs manpower, brainpower and a boost from below. This is something Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) economists Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo demonstrate through observation and field experiments in their book Poor Economics. "But the truth is, we are largely incapable of predicting where growth will happen, and we don't understand very well why things suddenly fire up," they write. "It seems plausible, however, that whenever that spark occurs, it is more likely to catch fire if women and men are properly educated, well fed and healthy…"

Government support, in the form of free food, goods or services, makes a difference. Much of this assistance is indeed siphoned away, but corruption is now a part of Indian national culture, embedded in private and public life. Should the distribution of food be held to a different standard than the construction of highways or obtaining a job?

There are more serious questions for the government to answer. For instance, why miss out on the chance to make social-service spending more efficient by linking vital programmes on education, nutrition and health for children to the food Bill? Why are the ombudsmen likely to be serving and retired bureaucrats?

The most important thing about the Bill is that it holds out hope for the poor. And hope, a global exploration of poverty emphasises, requires priority. In his book Poor People, award-winning American writer Walter Vollman asks, "Since hope dies last, why not place it first?"

Samar Halarnkar is a Bangalore-based journalist

The views expressed by the author are personal

First Published: May 08, 2013 21:23 IST