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How the Maharashtra Ended Famine

by P. SAINATH

Maybe the government, the National Advisory Council (NAC) and other assorted enthusiasts of the Food Security Bill can learn from Maharashtra about moving towards ending hunger altogether.

In 1963, the government of Maharashtra  (population in 2010 over 100 million) ended famine forever in the State. It did this without adding a morsel to anyone’s diet. It did so simply by passing an Act in the Legislature that deleted the word ‘famine’ from all laws of the State. No kidding. This was called ‘The Maharashtra Deletion Of The Term “Famine” Act, 1963” (and was dug up after decades by an independent researcher from Bangalore.)

The basis for this? Let the Act explain itself. It asserts that “there is now no scope for famine conditions to develop.” Why so? Because “the agricultural situation in the State is constantly watched by the State government.” And “relief measures as warranted by the situation are provided as soon as signs of scarcity conditions are apparent.” Goodbye Famine.

The next paragraph says the term ‘famine’ “has now become obsolete, and requires therefore to be deleted” (emphasis added) from “other laws on the subject in their application to the State.” It decrees that “for the words ‘famine or acute scarcity’ the word ‘scarcity’ shall be substituted,” in all laws of the State. Lucky Maharashtra — it can’t ever have acute scarcity either.
By slaying famine and acute scarcity on paper, a government kills its own responsibility towards citizens, mainly poor and hungry ones, in times of crisis. Its burden becomes less. It can concentrate (especially in Maharashtra) on boosting the Indian Premier League and its billionaires.

This approach essentially defines a problem out of existence. You can’t fight famine — so abolish it. It’s a proud tradition the State still hews to. Can’t stop farmers’ suicides, so redefine who a farmer is. Then redefine what a suicide is. Maharashtra has done both. Why not have a law banning the word ‘farmer’ or ‘suicide’ or both? Solves an annoying problem in a State that has seen, in official count, over 44,000 farm suicides since 1995.

This is an Act in a State with a gosh-awful record in food production for years. That includes a 24 per cent fall in 2008-09. A rich State that has seen far more child hunger deaths than many poorer ones. A State that added greatly to its hungry with 2 million people losing their jobs between 2005-06 and 2007-08. That’s over 1800 each day — and that’s before the global meltdown of September 2008, according to the State’s own economic survey.
The 1963 Act casts its shadow to this day. By legal definition, we cannot have a serious crisis in Maharashtra. So when there is one, we respond to it on a much lower scale than needed. No matter how deadly the crisis, relief work will never be up to the mark because it is not required by law to be so.
The Union government and the NAC can learn from this. Why not just abolish the word ‘hunger’ by law? Replace it, maybe, with ‘a mild craving for calories’ (mild, not ‘acute,’). Or words to that effect. End of hunger. We’ve started down that road. The NAC’s idea of ‘universal PDS (public distribution systems)  in 150 districts” is similar. It re-defines the word ‘universal.’ Death by definition has been routine for decades in India — consider the poverty line debates, for instance.

Meanwhile, say the ‘experts,’ the millions of tonnes of grain rotting in open yards present a “golden opportunity” for India to export this in bulk “and seize on the high prevailing global prices of grain.” That is also what the government hopes to do. Its affidavit in response to a slap from the Supreme Court speaks of liquidating the excess stocks by open market sale (read exports).

Leave aside for a moment the appalling insensitivity of exporting grain when there are, as the Supreme Court says, many “admittedly starving people” at home. Just look at the logic of it. You have a gigantic pile up of grain. You have these admittedly starving people. You say the production is not enough to go for a universal system in PDS — even while boasting we have so much grain, we can cash in on high global prices. Remember that the government has bragged of “recording the highest ever production of about 235 million tonnes of food grains in 2008-09 …” So much so that we cannot store half of it and it is rotting.

Who will you export it to? Are there good global prices for rotting grain? Grain that even when in best condition was not of superior quality? What you will do is flog it at rock bottom prices to traders who know you won’t consider any other option — like letting the hungry eat it — and can knock your prices through the floor. And then the traders can export it as cattle feed — like India has done before in this very decade. About the only thing Iran and Iraq could agree on in 30 years was that the grain exported to them from India was unfit for human consumption. Both rejected shipments early this decade. But there are always, never fear, European cattle. Talk of sacred cows — these will be subsidizhed by some of the hungriest humans on the planet.
The government knows this is how it will end up — and is not at all averse to that happening. Apart from the juicy avenues of corruption it presents to many connected to the Food Ministry and the trader lobbies linked to them, it makes “sound economic sense” in their worldview. One in which the hungry count for little. The National Democratic Alliance did the same thing in 2001-03 and paid the price for it in 2004. The United Progressive Alliance feels confident the elections are far off. And there are no pesky Leftists to restrain them in this innings. This is the time to ram through ‘hard decisions.’
Meanwhile, even as we talk of ‘exportable surpluses,’ we look around for ways to make up our production shortfall. Indian companies are buying land in parts of Africa to grow foodgrain. This finds approval with the Working Group on Agricultural Production set up by the Prime Minister and chaired by Haryana Chief Minister B.S. Hooda. Its report says “We should seriously consider these options for at least 2 million tonnes of pulses and 5 million tonnes of edible oil for 15-20 years.”

Indeed, the Hooda report wants us to spread our net further. It says “Indian companies can be encouraged to buy lands in countries like Canada, Myanmar, Australia and Argentina for producing pulses under long-term supply contracts to Indian canalizing agencies.” (Thereby eyeing four continents besides Africa). So even as we convert more and more food crop land to cash crop or to non-farm use at home, Indian companies (doubtless with handsome government support) will buy land and grow grain in poorer countries (which is where it will mainly happen). Why? So we can create worse food crises in even poorer nations? But what if the locals get restless? They might resent the food they hunger for being shipped to India? No worries. What are we building a Blue Water Navy for, anyway?

A dismal debate all around. Yet, in the next few weeks, the government, the NAC, Parliament, and the judiciary will all be called upon to take major decisions, even vital steps, on the food security of the Indian people. They might want to remember that there is existing legislation to draw from, legislation far superior to and of a very different kidney from the “Maharashtra Deletion of the Term ‘Famine’ Act, 1963.” That is, the Directive Principles of State Policy — that give us the vision and soul of the Indian Constitution.
Of course, the moment we speak of the Directive Principles, up pops the point: “but these are not enforceable!” Yet, the very line of the Constitution which says they are not enforceable goes on to say they are “fundamental in the governance of the country and it shall be the duty of the state to apply these principles in making laws.” How the state — and others — perform their duties will be on display in the next fortnight.

Will the courts say anything about the notion of shipping grain abroad when millions go hungry at home? Will the government say something other than ‘no’ to the needs of the hungry? Will the NAC rethink its stand on a universal PDS? Will Parliament accept fraudulent definitions of food security? Will anyone speak for the Directive Principles of State Policy and how policy must work towards strengthening them? It would, of course, be silly to expect a government of this sensitivity to care a fig for the Directive Principles. But perhaps we can hope that the Supreme Court does.

P. SAINATH is the rural affairs editor of The Hindu, where this piece appears, and is the author of Everybody Loves a Good Drought. He can be reached at: psainath@vsnl.com.

P. SAINATH is the rural affairs editor of The Hindu, and is the author of Everybody Loves a Good Drought. He can be reached at: psainath@mtnl.net.in

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