[Editor's cut] The House of Hunger and Mr Bumble’s Bungled Bill

If a neighbour hoards food and lets it rot as his children starve, what would we do? Report him to the authorities. Shame him. Boycott him. In the pantheon of the morally corrupt and sick minded, he would figure near the crest. Sadly, we forego such passions when the State practices that cruelty. The government’s failure to introduce its much-touted Food Security Bill yet in the ongoing budget session of Parliament is a travesty for India’s hundreds of millions of the hungry poor.
The proposed law has both detractors and champions. Activist Jean Drèze lauds its provisions, especially with regard to defining the role of the administrative and delivery machinery that would supply the subsidised foodgrain. A study that data analysis agency Crisil Research released on 30 April said the scheme would likely free up Rs 4,400 a year in the hands of every poor family — known as the ‘Below Poverty Line’ or BPL household — in some of the states. This is nearly twice the amount such a family spends annually on its bills for health, education and nutritious protein-rich food.
The Food Security Bill is nothing if not ambitious. In 2009-10, only 33-44 percent of the BPL households could buy subsidised foodgrain from the government public distribution system (PDS). The Food Security Bill grandly aims to extend that cover to three of every four rural citizens and one of two in urban areas. A large number of the BPL poor can’t avail the PDS because they don’t have the mandatory ration cards.
The Bill envisages additional identification mechanisms. Under it, rice would retail at Rs 3 per kg, wheat at Rs 2 and millet Rs 1. Individuals can buy up to 5 kg; the poorest 35 kg. Children up to six years old and pregnant and lactating women would get free meals.
So why isn’t the Bill tabled in Parliament yet? Much blame has been laid on the disinterest of Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar in pushing the Bill. The teeth of the opposition to it are, however, much wider. Even the Planning Commission overseen by Montek Singh Ahluwalia has been in dissonance with the Bill on who to cover. The Commission is averse to the subsidised grain going to over 37 percent people.
Predictably, neoliberal proponents who seek to end the welfare State baulk at the subsidy of $24 billion the sale would annually entail. In a blog dated 31 March, corporate honcho-turned-columnist Gurcharan Das argued that providing subsidised food to India’s poor would mean giving them “something for nothing and weaken the work ethic”. (Remember former Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney said America’s poor were “moochers”? He lost.)
Das churns out the old arguments that have repeatedly failed across Europe and North America: that the government should concern itself with building infrastructure alone and let industry take charge of the economy in an environment of free enterprise to spread jobs and prosperity. In any case, how can a people — perhaps as numerous as 800 million — possibly contribute to building an economy if they are chronically underfed, anaemic and ill, and suffer from severe malnutrition?
India’s poor are among the worst-off in the world. Half of its rural children are malnourished. Reportedly, one of three citizens between the ages of 15 and 49 is underdeveloped. Perhaps a quarter of the world’s malnourished are in India. Yet, India has bumper harvests year after year. It is projected that last year, India produced a whopping 250 million tonnes of foodgrain. Sadly, it is estimated that up to 20 million tonnes are lost annually because the country doesn’t have adequate storage capacity for it. Much of it rots away. On the other hand, per capita grain consumption has declined since 1972-73.
West Europe and North America could hardly have obtained their prosperity of the last century without their governments playing an overarching role in providing basic services, including cheap food, to their people. And yes, in more ways than one, those governments underwrote (as many still do) the supply chain of those services. It was only once their people were healthier, fitter and more educated that industry could move in to play its role in building the economy. It is time India went all out to convert the Food Subsidy Bill into a historic law to rewrite the compact with its millions.