This is an AHRC statement.
Food Security Bill, a rather ambitious though inadequate measure to eradicate hunger from India, was supposed to be tabled in the parliament yesterday. It was not. Despite the claims of supporting the bill, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the main opposition party, stalled the parliament over allegations about the government’s efforts to shield those responsible for massive corruption in allocation of coal deposits and refused to budge until the Prime Minister made a statement on the charges. The ruling coalition’s repeated attempts of buying peace for tabling the bill failed to soften BJP’s stance and thus the Food Security Bill got delayed yet again.
Though no one can argue over the opposition’s right to protest any policies of the government, forget criminal attempts of shielding the corrupt, one must ask if stalling the parliament is only the means available to achieve that goal. It would not be, if one does not subscribe to the petty politicking that has replaced real political engagement with issues in India.
For the record, chronic hunger is one of the saddest realities of India, an economy on the rise which ironically finds itself with the second highest number of underweight children, out of a total of 129 countries. Apart from this, almost 20 percent of Indian children get wasted because of chronic undernutrition while a further 48 percent experience stunted growth. The condition of women is not any better. Various studies have made it clear that with almost 38 percent non-pregnant women being anemic (and disturbingly high numbers for pregnant women – at 58 percent), this medical condition is a heavy burden for India’s resources. Though the data might not be shocking for a country in which women suffer the double burden of poverty and gender, it has grave implications for the health of future generations.
Equally disturbing is the continued decline in consumption, not merely of coarse grains like millet, but also in preferred cereals like rice and wheat. The continued decline is even more pronounced in rural areas. The explanations offered by the government for the decline, attributing it to the increased consumption of milk and oils, falls apart even on a cursory glance as the increase is negligible and insignificant. In sum, India is fast becoming into, if it has not already become, what noted economist Utsa Patnaik calls a Republic of Hunger.
It is in this context that the civil society has pushed the government into action on the issue, despite very stubborn resistance from the corporate lobby that has fiercely opposed the bill. It is the relentless struggle of the people that has brought the bill to this stage while braving all the charges of fiscal irresponsibility. That is why the opposition should let the parliament function by debating the bill and moving the motions of amendments over provisions they differ with. They should understand that the government is not doing them any favour by tabling the bill but is, in fact, forced by the people to rush on the issue. They should understand that it is the grave situation of hunger plaguing the countryside that has pushed them into promulgating the Food Security Ordinance just weeks ahead of the start of the Monsoon Session of the parliament.
There are real and very serious problems with the proposed bill. There are even more serious issues in its proposed implementation since the Public Distribution System (PDS) is corrupt and susceptible to leaks. Further, istead of offering universal coverage, the bill lends itself to practices of unfair inclusion and exclusion with its targeted approach. The bill will also treat the states with robust PDS unfairly and would make their better universal schemes untenable. But, there should be an informed debate in the parliament to sort all these issues out instead of making the impoverished people suffer more.
India needs a robust Food Security Act, and it needs it now. The political class should listen to the people if they do not want to render themselves irrelevant.