India’s “Right to Food” Debate


My vacation mornings here, in India, are usually spent in a leisurely session of  sharing newspapers with my father. As I read, I am fascinated  by the lively debate around the Food Security Bill. which basically ensures the right to a certain amount of food for everyone. The discussion is quite sharply divided among those who feel that these would amount to hand-outs and create the Indian version of  “takers”, a term familiar to us from the recent US election. The other side argues that despite impressive growth in recent years, the benefits remain limited to a few sections while most Indians, specially in the rural areas; live in crippling poverty without access to basic amenities like clean drinking water, sanitation, electricity and education. Some effort, they argue, is required on the part of the state that everyone can partake of the growth pie.

This debate is front and centre right now because the political parties are using it in one way or other to substantiate their position in the upcoming elections; the ruling party is pushing for it and worked around the problem of passing it in Parliament by getting it passed as an executive order. This would be applicable for 6 months, close enough to the elections for those in power to claim it as their record. Others think this a bad idea for several reasons: difficulty in deciding eligibility, execution of the program through the existing, leaky public distribution system, cost to the taxpayer etc. But it is simply the more visible version of an underlying dilemma: should India pursue growth alone and let the results work out for themselves or should social goals like education, sanitation etc. be actively pursued by the state? And it is one that reflects the differing attitudes to economic development in India, presented in an excellent article here.

Despite the differences on the ground between India and the US there are ways in which they echo each other: a certain impatience/indifference to those who are struggling. The “if they were any good they would have pulled themselves out, instead they are holding us back” school of thought has supporters everywhere it seems; the ability to ignore increasing inequality is global and the willingness to exploit the issues for political points is robust on every continent.

A very good summary of the debate  can be found here.

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