Oppose a bill that seeks to feed our starving millions?
Aug 30 2013
Sustaining campaigns without the attendant corruption needs to be tackled
— Nobel laureate & US agronomist Norman Borlaug
Famous words from the famous father of the green revolution. They also make it incumbent upon the Congress, BJP and other political formations to rise above petty political considerations to lift a vast number of our 1.2 billion population out of hunger and malnourishment.
Many neoliberal writers have been waiting to lynch advocates of the food security bill that was cleared by Lok Sabha earlier this week. A well-known commentator even trashed the Rs 125,000 crore-a-year compulsory food programme, on the ground that, at best, less than 1 per cent of India’s citizens go hungry to bed.
The erstwhile NDA regime led by Atal Behari Vajpayee brought India’s ‘poorest of the poor’ under a limited food security plan, named the antyodaya anna yojana at the start of the century and expanded the mid-day meal scheme across different states under the sarva siksha abhiyan (universal education campaign) to ensure higher enrolment in schools, especially in rural areas. In that sense, the latest food security campaign by the UPA is only an expansion of those schemes under the supervision and force of law, even though that plan comes with a heavy political undertone.
The national family health survey that was last published in 2005 reported that 21 per cent of all adult Indians suffered from malnourishment, compared with 17 per cent a decade earlier. India remains home to the largest number of malnourished children at 46 per cent of those under five years of age. Worse, half of all children under three years are underweight, while eight in 10 are anaemic.
While it is true that a large number of families will now gain access to subsidised food, buying rice at Rs 3 a kg, wheat at Rs 2, and coarse grains at Re 1 per kg, the programme, if it takes off successfully, will free part of their limited incomes to satisfy other basic needs.
Critics of the plan, however, argue that spending Rs 125,000 crore on the scheme every year is like flushing down the drain taxes paid by you and me. But then, these very learned men and women do not raise a finger when thousands of crores worth of tax incentives, exemptions and arrears remain uncollected or locked in endless litigation.
Two latest reports of the comptroller and auditor general (CAG) point to uncollected tax arrears worth Rs 4.08 lakh crore till March 31, 2012, with studfarm owner Hassan Ali topping the list of defaulters. Another Rs 323,037 crore has been locked in legal disputes pertaining to excise and service taxes payable by companies.
It is then worth asking why critics do not complain about tricky corporate tax dodgers who maul government finances year after year or why giant international telecommunications and oil companies treat India as a Banana Republic, wilfully avoiding and evading taxes.
Why then, we must ask, is there so much opposition to the food security bill that seeks to mitigate the sufferings of our starving millions? Is such opposition more because it has been designed to garner votes for the ruling coalition in the crucial elections to state legislatures later this year, and in the general election of 2014?
Sustaining campaigns like food security and rural jobs without the attendant corruption, pilferage and rampant red tape, is the biggest challenge that the government needs to tackle.
One good outcome of this campaign would be to utilise the huge quantities of food grains in government godowns that are left rotting every year, with 45 per cent of the stock susceptible to the vagaries of nature. Effectively leveraging this mountain of food should be key to stabilising the food security campaign in its incipient years.
Meanwhile, rather than junk the provision of providing hot cooked meals, the government would do well to rope in the Akshayapatra Foundation that feeds 1.368 million kids every day, for as little as Rs 750 per child per year. The foundation, supported by IT professionals, plans to extend its campaign to 5 million children, turning it into the world’s biggest voluntary effort.
Besides involving well-meaning voluntary groups in this giant food campaign, the government must also encourage flexibility and innovation at the level of state governments to make it the success that it deserves to be. For instance, the Jharkhand model is considered among the best nationally for distributing food grains and managing mid-day meals, notwithstanding the limited infrastructure and the Maoists insurrection.
The government must also look at the Brazilian case study, in which Oxfam has pointed to the country as a reference point for combating hunger. In 2010, Brazil adopted food security and nutrition as a basic right, by amending its constitution. Its huge success has been attributed to the small farms providing productive work to millions of citizens. Perhaps, India must link its food security campaign to providing productive work across farmlands, turning villages or village clusters into self-sufficient units in the food chain.
Finally, running the campaign shorn of political rhetoric and setting up an independent national food security mission with its own funding mechanism can turn the plan into a sustainable model replicable elsewhere in the world.