India witnessed a major ‘bandh’ or general strike on Monday, July 65, with millions of people across the country responding to a stay-off work call. Vast regions of the country were affected by the strike which was total in some states. The general strike saw a wide array of opposition parties mobilize for a protest against the Congress-led UPA government’s decision to decontrol petrol prices (“the market will set the price”) and also hike diesel and kerosene (the latter used by very poor people) prices steeply. The hikes come at a time of already spiralling inflation. Food price inflation — before the hikes — was already touching 17 per cent and general inflation is into double digits. This article was written just as the strike began.
There was irony in the timing of the petrol price decontrol order. The decision, which affects hundreds of millions of people, came even as Manmohan Singh advised world leaders in Toronto on the need for “inclusive growth” and while we are still debating “food security” and how best that should be achieved in law. It came amid severe food price inflation. Who are we trying to “include” in that growth?
No less tragic was the media’s reaction to the price decontrol. Even as Cabinet Ministers sought to distance themselves from it, the editorials mostly reeked of triumphalism: “Free at Last,” screamed one. “A bold, welcome move,” shrilled another headline. With rare exceptions, the edits — in contrast to the response of millions to Monday’s strike— showed yet again how far the mass media are from mass reality.
Most of the time, as the late Murray Kempton used to say, the job editorial writers do, is to “come down from the hills after the battle is over and shoot the wounded.” The media have done that definition proud. There’s even been an editorial on Bhopal in the same month that didn’t wait for that battle to be over. It finds the villains of Bhopal to be the “activist industry that continues to milk the tragedy” and mourns the real tragedy: that “any corporation, across the world, would be forced to think twice before proudly announcing to its shareholders that it has set up an ancillary unit in Bhopal.” It does not once mention the words “Union Carbide.” Roll over Kempton. The shooting’s on.
The early protests against the price rise got short shrift in the media. In the largest English daily, it earned a couple of stories spanning a modest few inches across three or four columns. The same daily twice devoted a full page — without an ad — on successive days to the death by suicide of a fashion model in Mumbai. Also, passing off without much comment this week — the elevation of our Food and Agriculture Minister to the post of president of the International Cricket Council, at a time when the entire nation is focussed on the issue of food prices and food security.
Mr. Pawar is quoted as saying (AFP, New Delhi, July 2) that he would request the Prime Minister to lessen his ministerial workload. “I may suggest having more hands to help me. I had asked for three Ministers but they have given me only one,” he told journalists. “… If I request to reduce some of my work, we may find some solution.” However, he does promise us that “I won’t allow my work in the government to suffer.” That’s reassuring. Maybe it’s time for the Prime Minister to extend inclusive growth to bring the Food and Agriculture Minister into food and agriculture. (Or we could include cricket in that sector.) Four Ministers in the same field would be truly inclusive.
Yet the fuel price decontrol will profoundly affect the prices of just about everything, at a time of already spiralling food costs, punctuated by periodic claims that “it should come down within a couple of months,” from Ministers and UPA hacks.
Now comes the news that the food security bill may be set for a radical overhaul. I guess that is welcome — it can’t be worse than the early attempts at drafting one. Take for instance the meeting of the Empowered Group of Ministers held in February. They were to “discuss the enactment of the proposed National Food Security Bill.” The first thing the Empowered Group came up with was this gem. 2.1 (a) “The definition of Food Security should be limited to the specific issue of foodgrains (wheat and rice) and be delinked from the larger issue of nutritional security.”
Food security delinked from nutritional security? Note that the same line concedes nutritional security is “the larger issue.” Why then the need to delink the two?
Is 35 kg of rice at Rs. 3 a kilo (for a section of the population) food security? Are there no other determinants of food security? Like health, nutrition, livelihoods, jobs, food prices? Can we even delink the fuel price hike from discussions on food security? Or from the wilful gutting of the public distribution system? Or from the havoc wrought by the ever-growing futures trade in wheat, pulses, edible oils and more?
The truth is the government seeks ways to spend less and less on the very food security it talks about. Hunger is defined not by how many people suffer it, but by how many the government is willing to pay for. Hence the endless search for a lower “Below the Poverty Line” (BPL) figure. To the government’s great dismay, all three officially-constituted committees have turned up estimates of poverty higher than its own. Even the Tendulkar committee, closest to the ruling elite’s worldview, raises the estimate of rural poverty to 42 per cent. (On a weak and fragile basis, it is true. But still higher than the government’s count.)
The BPL Expert group headed by N.C. Saxena raises that to around 50 per cent. The report of the National Commission for Enterprises in the Unorganized Sector states on its first page that 836 million Indians (77 per cent of our people) live on 20 rupees a day [42 US cents] or less. Accepting that higher estimate, for instance, would mean more in spending on the hungry. The official line is simple. Since we cannot afford to feed all the hungry, there must only be as many hungry as we can afford to feed.
Most dishonest of all is the “there-is-no-money” line. The country spends $2.1 billion on a new airport. There’s $8.5 billion or more for the Commonwealth Games. There’s $12.8 billion happily lost in the spectrum scam. There’s $107 billion in write-offs under just three heads for the super-rich and the corporate sector in the current Union budget. But funds for the hungry are hard to come by. What would it cost to universalize the PDS? Pravin Jha and Nilachal Acharya estimate that if rice/wheat were made available to all Indians at 6 cents a kilo, it would add $17.8 billion to the food subsidy in coming budgets. That’s about one-sixth of the tax write-offs for the wealthy in this year’s budget. (Other estimates place the added expenditure each year at no more than $9.6 billion).
What will be the costs of not finding the money — in a country which ranks at 66 among 88 in the Global Hunger Index? In a nation whose child malnourishment record is worse than that of sub-Saharan Africa? A country now ranking 134 in the United Nations Human Development Index below Bhutan and Laos?
The same country that has 49 dollar billionaires in the Forbes list. (Many of whom receive government freebies in diverse forms. Some for their IPL involvements). If a government will not even try to ensure that no citizen goes hungry, should it remain in power? Or should it, at the very least, state honestly that the food security of every Indian is neither its aim nor its intent? Why tag ‘food security’ to a bill that will legitimize the opposite? How can we call something a ‘right’ if everyone does not have it?
A disclosure: I was a member of the BPL Expert Group. In a note annexed to that report, I argued that in four sectors — food, healthcare, education and decent work — access had to be universal. That flows from the Directive Principles of State Policy of the Constitution. The rights of our people are based on their being citizens. Not on their ability to pay. Not on their being BPL or APL (or even IPL). Rights, by definition, are universal and indivisible.
Will the features of the government’s proposed food security bill take the Directive Principles forward? Or will it weaken them? Diluting constitutional rights and presenting the watered down mix as progressive legislation is fraud. The only PDS that will work is a universal one. It is only in those States that have the closest thing to a universal system — Kerala and Tamil Nadu — where the PDS has functioned best.
Now there’s talk of an “experiment” making access to food (that is, mainly wheat and rice) “universal” in about 150 districts. While this might be a step forward in thinking, it could prove a misstep in practice. This is “targeting” in other clothes. It could collapse as foodgrain from districts that are “universal” migrate to districts that are not. Better to go that final mile. Universalize.
P. SAINATH is the rural affairs editor of The Hindu, where this piece appears, and is the author of Everybody Loves a Good Drought: Stories From India’s Poorest Districts. He can be reached at: email@example.com.