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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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Who is Rahul anyway?

The land of the Maharajas banished the idea of Maharajas early in the 20th century.  That does not mean that royalty is dead in democratic India. Witness the crown price and heir apparent of the Congress party, Rahul Gandhi.   In some circles, it appears that it is not so much a matter of “if“, but more one of “when” he ascends the throne, i.e., becomes the Prime Minister of India. As you can imagine, there are at least two diverse points of view on whether this would be a good thing for the country or not. But, based on what? History perhaps and family heritage, the party he belongs to, definitely, but what about him, as an individual?

When I first thought about writing this post, I thought it would end up being very interesting because it would be a learning experience.  Most of these posts demand that I find out more about the topic at hand because I just don’t know enough. So, finding out more about the crown prince of India ought to be fun, right?  Wrong.

You know why?  Because there is very little information that is interesting and more surprisingly, just very little, period.

For someone who belongs to the Gandhi family – great-grandson of Nehru, grandson of Indira Gandhi, son of Rajiv and Sonia Gandhi, and heir apparent, there is surprisingly not very much that one can gather from media archives. Google’s answer to “Rahul Gandhi Interview” pointed me to two, yes just two, interviews. Both were from circa 2004-05; I believe that was around his launch into politics.  Let me tell you, they were pretty light.

Oh yes, I know the basic facts – that he is 41 years old, leader of the Indian Youth Congress, general secretary of the All India Congress Committee and Member of Parliament. He contributed to Congress winning various seats across India during the last election, including those of some hand-picked candidates of his own. He gives an aura of contemporary thinking, change, and working for the aam aadmi (ordinary man).

But is that just an aura?  Darned if I know! I can’t tell what he thinks and believes in, what his philosophy is, what his strengths are or his weaknesses.  Is he a good leader?  And, if so, why? What does he really aspire to and what are his goals and objectives for himself and for India? I have been unable to find any columns where he has expressed any opinions. There are too many unknowns, and this after the man has been in politics for a few years now. Is this a deliberate obfuscation of facts? Or are there simply no depths to plumb?  I just can’t tell.

One Q&A from the dated interview I reference above goes like this – Q: What is your mission as a politician? Rahul’s Answer: I will create a new brand of politics in India. Just wait and see.

I don’t think I am overstating anything when I say that the time has come to learn more about Rahul Gandhi – the individual, the politician, the potential leader of the county.  Something with depth. There’s a perfect opportunity in front of him – the crucial fight for winning UP back for Congress during the next election. There’s been some noise and movement by him in that direction; perhaps it will turn out to be his first (real) moment in the sun. Indeed, that would be something to look forward to.

But for now, so much for this post about Rahul Gandhi.  Enlightened you, did I?  I can’t say the same for myself. It’s a shame, because I was looking forward to learning quite a bit about the Gandhi scion.

It’s time to set this aside and move on to more stimulating and interesting topics, while hoping this one gains depth and breadth over time, and that I can, in fact, return to it someday.

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