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Hunger games


The country is at an imperfect standstill. At the time of going to press, the sound and the fury over the presence of Law minister Ashwani Kumar and Railways minister Pawan Kumar Bansal in government continues. An  incredibleleft-right coalition of voices is united in the demand that both gentlemen have severely compromised themselves as well as the government and must go. A vocal media, reflecting the sheer disgust of the  people  at  the  sheerbrazenness of their elected representatives, has picked up the chorus of the campaign outside.

Meanwhile, it can now be said that the reason why the Congress party’s much-vaunted Food Security Bill was not passed during the Budget session of Parliament earlier this week, because the Congress government itself was principally opposed to spending such large sums of money on this welfare measure, and so used the cover of the Opposition’s abominable behaviour in Parliament to postpone it.

As we watch this space, here’s the background to the Bill itself and how Right to Food campaigners lobbied nearly 200 MPs across the political spectrum in an effort to educate the political class on this incredibly  importantpiece of legislation that is expected to go a long way to mitigate endemic hunger, oppressive starvation and serious malnutrition.

From Brajesh Pathak of the Bahujan Samaj Party to Shivanand Tiwari of the Janata Dal (United) to Sushma Swaraj, Arun Jaitely and Ravi Shankar Prasad of the BJP  to  Vilas  Muttemwar  (chair  of  the  standing  committee)  andJanardhan Dwivedi and Motilal Vora of the Congress to Ramgopal Yadav of the Samajwadi Party to fellow activists in all the Communist parties, the pro-food security campaigners worked the party lines.

Everybody agreed that the facts, despite 20 years of economic reform, were so horrendous that it made you wonder whether a rising India, that is rightfully taking its place on the high  table  of  the  world’s  most  powerful nations, had seceded from a chronic blight: 3 lakh newborns die on the first day they’re born, 70 per cent of India’s women are anaemic and an inequality-adjusted score brings down the otherwise reasonable  Human  DevelopmentIndex (134 out of 186 countries) of 0.554 by about 30 per cent. Meaning, even as some parts of India grew richer as a result of the much-needed economic reform that was launched 20 years ago, large parts of  the  country  are failing to catch up.

But an equally interesting picture was emerging from the lobbying campaign: Sonia Gandhi, architect of the National Advisory Council on which activists like Jean Dreze and Aruna Roy had once sat alongside, seemed increasingly unable to make any promises about her pet project, the Food Security Bill. In fact, at one time, the campaigners gheraoed the Rajiv Gandhi Foundation when she was inside only to be told that  she  would  give them an appointment. The meeting never came through. Meet Manmohan Singh, was the only message.

Congress party members, on the condition of anonymity, believe that the prime minister never made a serious effort during the Budget session to present the Bill.  Unlike  the  monsoon  session  in  Parliament  in  2008  when legislation relating to the Indo-US nuclear bill needed to be passed – the PM piloted the Bill himself, and when he wasn’t allowed to speak because the Opposition created a din, the papers were taken to be read – there was no concerted political effort on the party of the Congress party this time around to focus on the need to push the Food Security Bill. In 2008, the PM had threatened to resign if the nuclear deal-legislation was not passed. This time around, the PM was seen to be digging in his heels over the need to defend Ashwani Kumar and Pawan Bansal.

Congress party activists now admit to rising differences in opinion between Sonia Gandhi and Manmohan Singh in recent months, and point out that the food security bill was a casualty of this  dichotomy.  Those in favour of Sonia say she has wanted the PM to take a stand on Ashwani Kumar ever since the CBI blew the lid on his interference, and recently on Bansal. They point out that if Kumar and Bansal had been sacked on the eve of the Karnataka result, the perception in the country would have gained ground that the Congress would not tolerate corruption. Instead, the PM’s refusal to sack both people has considerably  dented  the  amazing  feel-good  moment after Karnataka.

Those in favour of Manmohan Singh insist that welfare measures like the food security bill, estimated to cost another Rs 90,000 crore, will break the back of the exchequer, already groaning under the weight of schemes like NREGA and that if Sonia really wants something, Manmohan Singh would never say no.

According to this pro-reform school of thought, India would do much better to focus on Deng Xiaoping’s model of pro-growth than antiquated anti-poverty measures like universal PDS.

That argument is both incomplete and superficial. Deng certainly unleashed his country’s economic and entrepreneurial potential with his “to get rich is glorious” slogan, but look closely at how  China has institutionalised health care and education reform. It is on the back of a reasonably healthy, well-fed and educated population that China’s economic miracle has taken place. In fact, the Soviet Union  institution of a safety net for its population, that had emerged from the ravages of concentration camps and the trauma of World War II, was so significant that the idea outlived the disintegration of the state in 1991-92.

At a press conference last week, Nobel laureate and economist Amartya Sen insisted that India could not without continuing economic reform, but pointed out that if India remained hungry and ill-fed, it would simply be  unable to support this reform. He laid the blame on the Opposition’s door by not allowing a debate in Parliament on the food bill, pointing out that this was much more important than focusing exclusively on the Ashwani Kumar-Pawan Bansal imbroglio.

But the truth is that both Sushma Swaraj and Arun Jaitely had told Right to Food activists in March that the BJP would support the Bill in parliament, as long as it was brought in line with Chhattisgarh’s  food security act passed in December 2012. They pointed out that the BJP’s Raman Singh government in Chhattisgarh had stolen a march over the UPA’s awfully-designed Bill, not only by capping the outgo of cereal/pulses per household  to  35  kg (the UPA version limits it to 5 kg of wheat/rice/millet per head), but also looked at farmer procurement, the need to incentivise agriculture, storage, as well as take-home nutritious meals for young children.

Is this another of Manmohan Singh’s “theek hai” moments that the Congress party will rue later?

The writer is a Delhi-based journalist 


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