Disgusted with millions of tons of foodgrain rotting in the open yards (the godowns not being large enough to house them), The Supreme Court of India said the grain should be distributed to the poor rather than allowing to rot and go to waste. The Prime Minister hit back saying the court should not stray into policy matters, or as he put it, “the realm of policy formulation.” Meanwhile the media which always cheer judicial activism in cases involving the middle classes, clicked their tongues and said this was taking judicial interventionism a bit too far (the order than the grain be distributed amongst the poor.)
Hence my open letter to the Prime Minister of India, Manmohan Singh.
Dear Prime Minister,
I was delighted to learn that you said, while also “respectfully” ticking off the Supreme Court, that tackling food, rotting grain etc., — are all policy matters. You are absolutely right and it was time somebody said so. With that, you brought a whiff of honesty so lacking in the United Progressive Alliance’s public blather. It is for your government, not the court, to decide what to do with the grain now rotting in millions of tons. If policy dictates that it go bad rather than let hungry people eat it, that’s no business of the court. The “realm of policy formulation,” as you put it, is yours. It feels good to have the nation’s leader accept — well, sort of, anyway — that growing hunger, falling nutrition, rotting grain, lack of storage space, all these arise from policy. (They were certainly not caused by any Supreme Court rulings I know of.)
A lesser man would have copped out, blaming it all on the opposition, the weather or the mysterious (but ultimately beneficial) workings of the Market. You don’t do that. You clearly locate it in policy. And policies are far more deliberate, far less abstract than markets.
Storage space for foodgrains
It was, after all, a policy decision to spend almost nothing for years on building additional public storage space for foodgrain. Governments have the money to subsidize the building of new cities, malls and multiplexes across the country. By “incentivising” private builders and developers. But none for building storage space for the nation’s foodgrain.
The ‘new’ idea, instead, is to hire privately-owned space. Which does raise the question sir, of why your government decided, by policy, to de-hire a few million metric tons worth of hired space between 2004 and 2006. That was done on the paid-for advice of an expensive multinational consulting firm. Re-hiring space now will surely mean much higher rental costs, bringing cheer and joy to the hungry, starving rentiers. (Maybe even to the MNC which could now be paid for giving you the opposite of the advice it did the last time.)
More so, since your latest policies “incentivize” things further for the rentiers. Pranabda’s budget speech (Point 49) hiked the guaranteed period of space hire from five to seven years. Actually, it’s been upped to 10 years since then. (A word of caution from a well-wisher: the reports of that expensive MNC consulting firm have been the kiss of death for any government dumb enough to act on them. Ask Mr. Naidu in Andhra Pradesh.) There was always the option of building foodgrain storage space on government-owned land. As Chhattisgarh is now doing. It would cost much less in the long run and curb profiteering from our need to tackle hunger. These being policy matters, that’s just a suggestion, not an order.
As your message makes clear to the Supreme Court, the rotting grain is none of their business. As the nation’s most important Professor of Economics, I’m sure you have well-thought out policies on what to do with the grain, rotting or about-to-rot, in open spaces and bad godowns. I just wish someone of your erudition would explain these policies to an increasingly aggressive rat population which thinks it can do anything it likes with that grain and simply ignores the courts altogether. (Maybe we need to incentivize the rodents to lay off the grain.)
Meanwhile, a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) spokesperson has all but admitted that the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government had paid the price on this very issue. A wipe-out at the 2004 polls. Amazing what a consensus there is on all these being policy matters. Even the Supreme Court seems to agree.
Nine years ago, Dr. Singh, the apex Court in the very same, ongoing Right to Food case, had this to say (August 20, 2001). “The anxiety of the Court is to see that the poor and the destitute and the weaker sections do not suffer from hunger and starvation. The prevention of the same is one of the prime responsibilities of the Government — whether Central or the State. How this is to be ensured would be a matter of policy which is best left to the government. All that the Court has to be satisfied … is that the foodgrains … should not be wasted … or eaten by rats…What is important is that the food must reach the Hungry.”
The farmers who have been committing suicide in tens of thousands also agree with you totally, Prime Minister. They know it was policies, not the law courts, which drove them to take their lives. That’s why several who left behind suicide notes addressed those to you, to the finance minister, or our own beloved Maharashtra chief minister (busy, even as we speak, Saving the Tiger in a TV studio). Ever read any of these letters, Dr. Singh?
Has the government of Maharashtra, led by your own party, ever given you a single one of them? They speak of debt, credit, rising input costs and falling prices. Of governments that do not hear their cries. These are not even addressed to their families, but to you, Dr. Singh, and your colleagues. Yes, they understood the role of policy in their misery — and therefore addressed the authors of those policies in their notes.
Ramakrishna Lonkar of Wardha put it simply in his suicide note after your historic visit to Vidarbha in 2006. He said: “After the Prime Minister’s visit and announcements of a fresh crop loan, I thought I could live again.” But “I was shown no respect” at the bank, where nothing had changed. Ramachandra Raut of Washim was so keen to be taken seriously by his Prime Minister, that he not only addressed his suicide note to you, the President and your colleagues, he even recorded it on Rs. 100 non-judicial stamped paper. He was, by his lights, trying to make his protest ‘legal.’ Rameshwar Kuchankar’s suicide note in Yavatmal blamed the procurement price of cotton for the farmers’ distress. Even those letters not addressed to you, speak of policies. Like Sahebrao Adhao’s farewell note which paints a Dickensian portrait of usury in the Akola-Amravati belt.
All highlighted policy. And how right they were! Recent revelations (see The Hindu, August 13, 2010), show us that almost half the total “agricultural credit” in the state of Maharashtra in 2008 was disbursed not by rural banks, but by urban and metropolitan bank branches. Over 42 per cent of it in the financial farming-heartland of Mumbai alone. (Sure, the city has large-scale farming, but of a different kind — it cultivates contracts.) A handful of big corporations seem to hog much of this “agricultural credit.” No wonder Lonkar, Raut et al found it so hard to access credit. You can’t have a ‘level playing field’ (to borrow one of your favourite phrases) with billionaires.
While these are outflows of policy, the exclusive realm of your government, I confess to being a little flummoxed. The astounding price rise of several years is surely the well-foreseen outcome of government policies? This year, as you lectured world leaders in Toronto on inclusive growth, your government decontrolled petrol prices fully and diesel partially, while hiking kerosene prices, too.
When policies force hundreds of millions to cut their already meagre diets, can they be discussed? When they trample on people’s rights, and people go to courts seeking redress, what do the latter do, Prime Minister? You are right that the Supreme Court should not make policy. But what do they do when confronted with the consequences of yours? Policies are made, as you know better than I, by people. In your case by many distinguished economists including those who have fought attempts to ban child labour.
One who even wrote an article in The New York Times titled “The Poor Need Child Labor” (November 29, 1994) where he admitted to having had a 13-year-old work in his home. (And who also favoured the decontrolling of fuel prices — to tackle the price rise, no less. And perhaps to help child labour, too?)
What too, does the Supreme Court do when the government’s 2006 promise of a new Below Poverty Line (BPL) Survey to be completed before the start of the Eleventh Plan never materializes? What do they or anyone do when the government sets grain allocations to the states based on poverty estimates of year 2000 based on the 1991 Census. Twenty-year-old data which result in 70 million fewer people getting BPL/Antyodaya Anna Yojana (AAY) grain than should be the case.
I humbly suggest that while the Supreme Court copes with those dilemmas, we reconsider your policies. I would also be most grateful if you could forward a copy of this letter to your Food and Agriculture Minister if you remember who he is and where he is.
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.