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Dream to make India hunger free

Jul 13, 2009

The Indian government’s announcement to introduce a Right to Food Act has already generated an intense debate, says social activist Harsh Mander. In a country where millions still suffer from chronic hunger, enforcement of such a law holds tremendous promise of exiling hunger from every home, he argues.

In a nation where mammoth wealth and intense destitution have co-existed for millennia, a law that would bind governments to guarantee that no man, woman or child sleeps hungry could be momentous.

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It is such a right to food law that the newly installed union government in India has promised its people. A debate about the contours of such a law has begun within and outside government. If passed, it can become – with the Right to Information Act and the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act – the most significant contribution of this government to humane and accountable governance.

In free India, famines in which the lives of tens of thousands of people were snuffed out in brief dense moments of dark tragedy have passed into history. But hunger survives in the form of individual men, women and children – and sometimes entire tribal or dalit communities – subsisting for long periods without sufficient food.

They are forced to cut back on their food intakes, sometimes reduced to eating one meal a day; or to beg for food; or to eat tubers, grasses and mango kernels that fill their stomachs but provide no nutrition; or sometimes just to drink the starch water left over after cooking rice, which their neighbours give them in tight-fisted charity.

They suffer to see their children painfully sleep on empty stomachs, and often succumb to ordinary illnesses, which better-nourished people would easily survive.

Most vulnerable

Apart from the enormous toll that hunger takes in terms of human suffering, malnourishment also results in bodies being stunted and wasted and brains not developing to their full potential. Half the children born in this land continue to be malnourished, and two out of three women are anaemic, because even within families, women eat the least and only after all others have been fed.

Governments so far have tended to deny starvation, and been unsuccessful in reversing malnutrition. Before the intervention of the Supreme Court in 2001, they ran many food schemes, but these were not guarantees: they could be withdrawn or reduced, and there was no obligation on the State that these schemes must cover all needy people.

"Through the right to food act, the State has an opportunity to make governments responsible to reach food to all"

The Supreme Court changed this, by directing that governments could not withdraw any food schemes; and that all children in schools be given hot cooked school meals, all children under six years as well as nursing and expectant mothers supplementary feeding through ICDS, and all vulnerable groups ration cards.

But through the right to food act, the State has an opportunity to seize the initiative from the Courts, and instead comprehensively legislate itself to make governments responsible to reach food to all.

There are many within government, however, who would like to see a much more minimalist formulation of the State’s obligations under this law.

Soon after the President announced that legislating a Right to Food Act was among the new government’s highest priorities, the Ministry of Food and Civil Supplies circulated a proposal which tried to restrict the legal obligations of governments under the proposed law only to supplying 25 kilograms a month of rice and wheat at three rupees a kilogram. This too was only for a small segment of the population, which the government deemed to be “poor”.

There was a hushed clamour that even this would cast too heavy a burden on the State treasury. But shortly after, the Chairperson of the UPA, Sonia Gandhi, seized the initiative by writing her first letter to the Prime Minister since the installation of this government, proposing a bill that much more comprehensively guarantees adequate food to people who live with hunger.

Many people who are chronically denied food have been specifically detailed in the draft she recommended: such as single women, disabled and aged people, street children, bonded workers, people in casual, low paid employment including agricultural labour and rag-picking, the urban homeless, and others.

Similar initiatives

In her initiative were echoes of the luminous words of Lula da Silva, President of the Republic of Brazil, when his country launched a similar food guarantee, called “Hunger Zero”.

He had pledged, “We will make it possible for people in our country to eat three square meals a day, every day, with no need for handouts from anyone.Brazil cannot go on living with so much inequity. We must overcome hunger, extreme poverty and social exclusion. Our war is not to kill anyone. It is to save lives”. The sub-title of Brazil’s Food Security Policy was equally iridescent: “Brazilians who eat helping those who don’t”.

It is precisely these ethical and political convictions that India’s right to food law must draw upon if it is to rewrite history: that the first claim over the country’s resources must be of men and women, girls and boys who are the most deprived; that a right to food must impose binding obligations on the governments and people of India to exile hunger from every home; that this would involve redistribution of resources from those with privilege and means to those who are dispossessed; that necessary resources to reach food to every mouth therefore exist; and ultimately that the State must care.

"The food that this law would guarantee to every person in this country must be nutritious and sufficient for an active and healthy life"

The food that this law would guarantee to every person in this country must be nutritious and sufficient for an active and healthy life. It must also be assured: people should no longer have to live with agonising uncertainty of whether their loved ones or they will be able to eat tomorrow. And it should be food that they can access with dignity.

A bonded worker, a child searching in rubbish heaps, and a disabled or aged man who stretches out his limbs for alms, possibly may have a full stomach, but without the dignity that every single human being is entitled to.

The law must also contain penalties against public authorities who fail to reach food to hungry people. Public authorities can be punished if it proved that they killed a man in their custody. But if a child dies because State functionaries failed in their duties, none face penalties. The law would be toothless unless it changes this.

Possible ways

There are many ways in which governments under this law would have to reach food to people who are threatened with hunger. For able bodied men and women, it may be sufficient for governments to guarantee employment at decent wages in both the countryside and cities; to subsidise rice and wheat but also pulses and oilseeds; to encourage agricultural production of these foods and to procure these at reasonable prices from all farmers; and to reach food to scarcity areas.

But children additionally need nutrition, through breast-feeding, in ICDS centres and schools. For children who lack adult protection, like street children, a large network of government hostels alone can secure their food.

"This law can help end the suffering of watching one’s loved ones wilt, waste and die because they cannot afford healthy food"

Women require maternity benefits, and nutrition support to single women. Aged people need adequate pensions, and access to free cooked food in feeding centres. And for urban migrants and homeless people, community kitchens, which offer affordable nutritious food are imperative in thousands in every city.

This law can help end the suffering of watching one’s loved ones wilt, waste and die because they cannot afford healthy food. It can enable the people and governments to redeem their pledge to reach true freedom to all, by exiling hunger from every home. Several decades before Lula made his resounding moral appeal to his people in Brazil, Gandhiji too had offered us a talisman, to remind us that only those public policies are legitimate which make life better for those who are the most vulnerable and dispossessed. This law provides the chance at last to heed his counsel.

Source : The Hindu
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