Irrespective of the political and economic differences over some of its details India’s Rs. 1247.23 billion ($19.48 billion at the current exchange rate) National Food Security Bill is by most measures a profoundly significant initiative. The idea of making basic food and nutrition affordable to 800 million people through government intervention may seem staggeringly socialistic in certain parts of the world but its intrinsic merit is undeniable.
Societies where vast numbers of people have to suffer either chronic starvation or partial persistent hunger have no choice but to create laws and mechanisms that allow the state to intervene. By some estimates some 400 million people in India have to get by on near starvation level food consumption every day. Another 400 million or so barely manage to get decent levels of nutrition. It is against this backdrop that the National Food security Bill ought to be viewed.
India’s parliament has just begun debating the bill being brought in by the government of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. No one can seriously question the potential political benefit of the bill for Dr. Singh’s Congress Party in the run-up to the 2014 parliamentary elections as well five state assembly elections later this year. Political parties the world over do things that are politically self-serving. The Congress Party had made food security a part of its election manifesto/platform during the 2009 elections. To that extent, it can reasonably argue that it is merely trying to fulfill its promise. The transparently political timing of the bill’s introduction is a matter of strategy.
From what I have heard in the live parliamentary broadcast, the bill that seeks to provide subsidized food to nearly 70 percent of India’s 1.2 billion people does seem to generally enjoy support. However, the fact that it has been strongly identified with Congress Party president Sonia Gandhi as her favorite cause does exact some political price and create opposition for the sake of it. The broad disagreement is not so much about the necessity of such a law but over either some of the details or the timing of it. It is difficult for any political party to oppose the general principle of a legal right to food being enshrined.
In her speech while piloting the bill Gandhi said,"The question is not whether we can do it or not. We have to do it."
So far all signs indicate that India will soon have some form of a right to food.
Those of us who track such things know that the Congress Party made considerable electoral gains in 2009 because of its signature rural job guarantee program called the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Guarantee Scheme. There are expectations within the party that as it prepares for the 2014 elections, the National Food Security Bill could yet again swing votes in its favor. Once you get past the self-serving nature of such a move, you recognize that it is the essence of electoral politics for ruling parties to make such calculated moves.
Of course, the eventual success of such a fundamental right hinges on a set of vastly complex factors, including the chronically corrupt distribution of subsidized food. It remains to be seen whether the bill will pass and, having passed, will actually help 800 million people.