Battling soul-crushing poverty, Balai Gharai breaks down in tears and seeks alms from visitors in his village in Maoist-dominated Lalgarh in West Bengal. He moves around bare-torsoed, his emaciated frame and the protruding ribcage lifting the veil off the tall and misleading claims of economic growth in the third largest Asian economy celebrating its 64th Independence Day.
While politicians bicker and India’s red rebels unleash terror to achieve their mission, Balai’s life in Lalgarh, now referred to as Ground Zero in global media, remains unchanged.
The shiny urban shopping malls and the crushing rural poverty tell India’s story of past six decades- a journey that produced millions of slumdogs and exclusive clubs of millionaires. Kalahandis clearly outpace the prosperous life in upscale oasis-like neighbourhoods of New Delhi, or for that matter any Indian metro.
“I have no food. I beg with my wife and children,” breaks down Balai, his wizened face belying his much younger age.
Surprisingly, despite all the talks of development measures to combat the rise of Maoists, this writer found no one in Lalgarh who is a beneficiary of India’s much touted BPL (Below Poverty Line) scheme.
The Indian government last year said it would soon whip out a comprehensive Right to Food Act.
“After the Right to Information Act, Right to Work Act and Right to Education Act, the Government is working on a Right to food Act, which will be enforced soon,” Union Home Minister P Chidambaram said, claiming that his government’s economic measures have benefited all sections of the society.
Last year, the President of India announced that India will soon pass a Food Security Act, which will ensure at least 25 kg of wheat at Rs. 3 per kg to every household below the poverty line. The bill is yet to see the light of the day as debate over its provisions rages.
According to Institute of Developmental Studies, the debate is on the scale and scope on the potential Act. Two drafts of the proposed legislation have been passed around policy circles: a narrow version that mainly focuses on the delivery of grain to poor households through reforms of India’s large food subsidy programme and another prepared by activists who are part of the Right to Food Campaign, a people’s movement that hopes to enshrine broader entitlements to food in law.
The "Right to Food Campaign" is an informal network of organisations and individuals committed to the realisation of the right to food in India. They consider that everyone has a fundamental right to be free from hunger and under-nutrition.
The members of the Right to Food Campaign have “rejected'' the proposed draft of the bill- that promises 25 kg of foodgrains to each Below Poverty line population family per month at Rs. 3 per kg.
A newspaper report says they have urged Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to come up with a bill that covers every adult resident of the country under the Public Distribution System (PDS).
“Nothing short of a universal entitlement for the PDS would suffice to change the existing situation,'' they said in a letter written to the Prime Minister.
The Right to Food Campaign’s “essential demands” sets the Act in the context of the nutritional emergency in India and the need to address the structural roots of hunger. In concrete terms, the campaign demands a comprehensive “Food Entitlements Act”, going well beyond the limited promise in the ruling United Progressive Alliance (UPA) manifesto of 25 kgs of grain at Rs 3/kg for BPL households.
Aside from an overarching obligation to protect everyone from hunger, as well as to promote sustainable and equitable food production, essential provisions of the proposed Act include: a universal Public Distribution System (providing at least 50 kgs of grain per family with 5.25 kgs of pulses and 2.8 kgs of edible oils); special food entitlements for destitute households (including an expanded Antyodaya programme); consolidation of all entitlements created by recent Supreme Court orders (e.g. cooked mid-day meals in primary schools and universalization of ICDS); support for effective breastfeeding (including maternity entitlements and crèches); safeguards against the invasion of corporate interests in food policy; and elimination of all social discrimination in food–related matters.
Nobel laureate Amartya Sen has praised the government move to enact the Right to Food (Guarantee of Safety and Security) Bill.
“It is a step in the right direction,” he said.
“I think we should give credit to the government that they are thinking of bringing the Right to Food Act, the fact that they are thinking in this line is extremely important and we ought to recognise that,” said Amartya Sen, while cautioning that the government should ensure that the facilities reach the poor.
“Remember we have to reach the deprived people in a variety of ways and then look deeper and recognise that along with the under-nourishment problem, we have to address the question of general health care and public services,” Sen said.
According to an eye-opening editorial in The Hindu, the recommendation by the National Advisory Council for a revised Food Security Bill is, in essence, a proposal to enhance entitlements in some spheres while reducing them in others.
“The enhancement lies in the fact that the Bill will recognise, for the first time, a justiciable right to food for all persons in the yet-to-be-identified 150 ‘most disadvantaged' districts.
"The reduction lies in the fact that the revised Bill will not envisage such a right to food as a universal right, but as one restricted to a target group — in this case, to be identified by geographical targeting.
"This is in contravention of the letter and spirit of Article 11 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which declares that the right to food must be for all individuals (and not circumscribed by region or any other factor) and that a variety of instruments must be used to respect, protect, and fulfil that right,” the editorial reads.
“The most unjust feature of the proposed revised Bill will be the restriction of the right to food to people living in a fourth of India's districts and not even necessarily comprising a fourth of the country's deprived population — the world's largest mass of poor, credibly estimated to be in the region of 800 million. A malnourished person must have recourse to the same justiciable right to food wherever she or he lives,” it says.
According to P. Sainath, the noted writer on poverty and rural affairs editor of The Hindu, as a member of the BPL Expert Group he had 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,” he says.
“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,” he asks.
“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,” he writes.
But the debate over the bill notwithstanding and even with its enactment, the efficacy of any legal provision depends on its implementation in right earnest.
It remains to be seen if Balai’s status as a beggar changes when we write another Independence Day column next year.
: : By Sujoy Dhar : :