What’s more Basic than Food?

The answer to that question is Not Much. And this fact is brought closer to home than ever, when you live in or experience India. If you have not yet reached a numbing acceptance about what surrounds you here, you will see the abject hunger of too many human beings – virtually anywhere you look in this country.

Which brings us to some light at the end of the tunnel. The Government of India is in the final stages of drafting a bill for the Food Security Act with implementation set to begin in phases, as early as next year.  This bill when turned into law will make access to food a constitutional right for the citizens of India. That’s a giant of an objective! And, about time, wouldn’t you say?

In fact, the National Food Security Act 2011 is touted as being the most expansive action being taken by the current government. This is a laudable effort indeed. It is becoming known as the mother of all welfare schemes by providing free and subsidized food to large swathes of the population.

In order to establish which Indians would receive food subsidies, it is also important to classify people using some logic. One such means is to determine what it means to be below the poverty line (BPL).  So, the Planning Commission recently advised the Cabinet that any urban dweller making Rs.20 per day or a rural person who makes Rs.15 per day should be categorized as being BPL.  Those numbers converted to USD today are roughly $0.44 and $0.33 (income per day) respectively!

But, that is setting the bar too low! This eliminates masses of people who are in fact very poor and truly need affordable or free food from getting it.  Truly bad news!

Here is the reaction of some such people in this wonderful article from Tehalka.  The author, tongue in cheek, calls it the new Fortune list where several “rich” Indians (above the ridiculous new poverty line, anyway) respond to the BPL. I hope for good news soon that eliminates such flaws from the upcoming legislation and eventually its implementation.Input is being sought from states and the Supreme Court on addressing various challenges this initiative faces before finalizing the bill.

Key areas that need to be addressed include: food distribution, transparency, corruption, red tape, mismanagement, middle-management – ultimately, is the food reaching all the people it needs to?

In reaction to the bill, numerous leading Indian economists from around the world wrote this joint open letter to Ms. Sonia Gandhi (it was printed in The Economic Times). Truly worth reading, it urges her to adopt specific recommendations particularly about who it covers as well as how the food should be distributed .

Let me repeat, the whole idea of the country wanting to ensure that no citizen goes hungry is truly commendable.  It would be great if they would take this commendable goal and turn it into a commendable initiative of excellent execution. It should avoid, at all costs, becoming a half-baked, compromised set of actions that invite well-deserved criticism and censure, while not solving the problem it was designed to address.

If I sound cynical, it is only because current and past governments have a legacy of screwing things up so that the final product does not bear much resemblance to the original objective. This one is such a great objective*, with numerous, overwhelming benefits for the country and its citizens; I am sure that I am not alone in feeling overly apprehensive about the potential for compromise and flawed execution. I just hope that the Government of India can get it right!

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* btw, I say this is a great objective, even knowing that there is an ulterior political motive of buying votes from the masses with food. Because, ultimately, if done correctly, it really will help the people of this country.

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Photo: By Steve Evans (Flickr) [CC-BY-2.0 (www.creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

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Posted on June 18, 2011, in demographics, india, people, politics and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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