The Right to Food
I remember what food rations meant in the 1960s and ‘70s. Long queues would form in front of the ration or fair price shops as soon as word got around that the trucks carrying wheat or rice had arrived. Sometimes, the arrival of food grain turned out to be plain rumour — causing great anger and anxiety amongst those who went back with empty bags. India was still not self-sufficient in food grain and was forced to import it from the US and other countries. Much of the wheat that India got from the US’s PL-480 was resent as it was rumoured to be for cattle. For some time scarcity continued, but PL-480 wheat, mercifully, vanished. As the open market displayed more abundance, the reliance on fair price shops and the public distribution system (PDS) for the middle class lessened. However, for the poor and those in the low income groups, life did not change.
Take a look at this contradiction. India has perhaps one-third of all the starving people in the world — about 230 million people. At the same time, the country builds a huge food reserve of about 70 million metric tonnes every year. Civil society activists and progressive economists have wondered how these two realities could coexist simultaneously without troubling the conscience of the government and the ruling class. So what is the propriety of having a ‘buffer stock’ when there are so many hungry mouths?
This has been a problem since we gained independence in 1947 and embarked on the famous ‘tryst with destiny’, as eloquently articulated by the country’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. Dark images of millions of starving people during the Great Bengal Famine of 1943 have defined the meaning of independence, which was not just about people exercising political choices in a democracy, but also freedom from mass hunger, suffering and deprivation.
Jean Dreze, along with all those who have deep understanding of the marginalized in India, knows too well what it means to be hungry, and why it is the moral responsibility of the government to feed the millions
India has struggled with poverty and hunger for the better part of 67 years. Millions have spent sleepless nights unable to comprehend from where the next meal will come. Although the country attained self-reliance in food grain production in the late 1960s and also beefed up the PDS, there was still a large populace living below the poverty line that just did not have the purchasing power to access these outlets. During the 1980s, welfare schemes such as food for work programmes were launched where grain and cereal were given in lieu of work. However, the invitation to IMF loans forced various regimes to devalue the PDS and other mass welfare schemes. After 1991, improving growth had become an obsessive fetish for many neo-classical economists. Manmohan Singh’s budget as finance minister, when he unveiled brazenly pro-business ‘reforms’ of the economy, changed the priorities of the government.
As growth returned, people kept asking the fundamental question, how this absurdity of 9 per cent growth could be reconciled with sub-Saharan nutritional standards. Worse, the country was being projected as a regional power when its social indicators were worse than neighbouring Bangladesh. Public interest litigation (PIL) in the Supreme Court brought focus on food security, the right to food and universalization of mid-day meal schemes. The demand was premised on the simple fact that growth never really trickles down. In high-growth states like Gujarat or Maharashtra, there was no visible reduction in poverty.
From this standpoint, it was necessary for food to become an entitlement and right for the hungry. This point of view has been fiercely resisted by economists like Jagdish Bhagwati and Arvind Panagriya who do not want the prescriptions of Nobel laureates like Amartya Sen to be followed on this issue of investment in the social sector. Bhagwati and Panagriya, who are singing paeans in praise of Narendra Modi’s pro-big business policies, not too long ago saw similar merit in Manmohan Singh when he was unilaterally favouring the rich and moneybags.
The moment government policies began to reorient towards helping the poor, they started raving
Save for Jean Dreze, who works with the poorest in the remotest interiors of India, and other economists and social scientists who argue for State intervention in the social sector, many of these Rightwing economists are residents of ivory towers. Dreze, along with all those who have deep understanding of the margins and marginalized in India, knows too well what it means to be hungry, and why it is the moral responsibility of the government to feed the millions even if the business houses living on government bailouts resent it so aggressively.