[Reader-list] Reg: Set - 5

Rakesh Iyer rakesh.rnbdj at gmail.com
Wed Jun 23 21:33:18 IST 2010

Source: The Hindu

Article Theme: Right to Food

Date: Tuesday, Jul 28, 2009

Link:  http://www.hinduonnet.com/2009/07/28/stories/2009072855140900.htm

Article Content:

*Right to Food Act: essential but inadequate * Rahul Lahoti and Sanjay G.
Reddy * There is an imbalance between the expansive vision expressed by the
draft Act and the narrow means it seeks to achieve it. *

The Union government’s draft Right to Food (Guarantee of Safety and
Security) Act insists on “the physical, economic and social right of all
citizens to have access to safe and nutritious food, consistent with an
adequate diet necessary to lead an active and healthy life with dignity…”
The proposed law offers a quantity of cereal at a modest cost each month to
a broad range of beneficiaries: in principle, all those living under the
poverty line and a range of others.

The recognition of a right to food (and therefore to freedom from
undernourishment and hunger) is a landmark measure and deserves great
credit. However, there is an imbalance between the expansive vision
expressed by the Act in principle and the narrow means it seeks to achieve
it in practice; reflected, for instance, in its focus only on calories from
foodgrains and on direct distribution rather than on the provision of means
for commanding food and on complementary policies. It appears that the Act
may not add much to the existing Public Distribution System or State and
Central programmes to provide subsidised cereals.

It appears very important to address the poor functioning of the existing
system, and to remedy both the apparent discrepancies across States and the
general non-transparency in the definition of the beneficiaries (in
particular, the ambiguities in the understanding of what is a ‘Below Poverty
Line’ household). It is also unclear how the Act will be truly rights-based,
in the sense that an individual may make a binding demand for the
satisfaction of the right.

A contrast can be drawn between an approach to further economic and social
rights which centres on the direct provision of essential goods and one
which ensures access to such goods through the creation of an economy and
society which produces and distributes these adequately in the normal
course. It is possible to fulfill such basic rights even at a relatively low
per-capita income by employing public action, but there are advantages to
combining both means in order to fulfill them in a sustained way.

An approach focussed on the provision of subsidised resources can play a
vital role in protecting the poor and the vulnerable from catastrophic
outcomes, and can contribute to the establishment of a more productive and
healthy population that is capable of bringing about a higher level of
national development. It can serve ends which are both intrinsically and
instrumentally important.

However, such an approach is, in isolation, likely to be more costly, less
effective and face more political challenges to its maintenance, than one
which is supported by a larger programme to generate remunerative
livelihoods and inclusive growth. A trajectory of national development which
brings about a widening circle of prosperity will both help ensure that the
right to food is fulfilled, and make it easier to provide direct support
wherever required.

The recent renewal of the government’s focus on investment in agriculture
and rural development can be helpful in this regard, though much more is
required if there is to be a departure from the overly concentrated pattern
of recent economic growth which has centred precipitously on a few islands
of relative prosperity. Growth must occur in a variety of sectors of
production as well as geographical areas in order to be socially inclusive.
Inclusive growth may require broad-based investment in human capabilities,
public goods, productive infrastructure and policies to broaden access to
productive resources such as land and credit.

A related distinction is between legislation seeking to promote or protect a
basic right and the strategy of doing so. The proposed Act will help further
the fulfilment of the right but will not by itself achieve it, and it is
unlikely that any one piece of legislation would do so. Already, diverse
pieces of legislation, including the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act
(NREGA), contribute in different and important ways toward that end. It
should be ensured that these diverse measures together constitute a layered
social security system which protects various groups of vulnerable people,
going beyond the able-bodied poor to include the elderly, the handicapped
and children. As Amartya Sen has famously underlined, starvation results
from insufficient command over food and not usually from inadequate food
availability as such. Since command over food is achieved in a diversity of
ways, through the market mechanism and otherwise, it can also fail in a
variety of ways.
 A broader strategy

The generation of adequate purchasing power is, however, a crucial means to
ensure food security in a market economy, which India increasingly is. As
such, in addition to protective measures such as the NREGA, a broader
strategy of inclusive growth — a generalised increase in opportunity across
the society — is the essential means to secure the fulfilment of the right
to food.

Such a strategy is the product of a range of government actions and cannot
be fully enshrined in legislation, however important such legislation may
be. The framers of the Indian Constitution recognised this in laying out the
Directive Principles, which have an intermediate role in the sense that they
recommend a direction to the use of sovereign power while declining to
restrict it.

India continues to be a primarily agrarian society. The majority of the
people derive their livelihood directly or indirectly from agriculture, even
as the share of economic output generated by agriculture has sharply
diminished. It is important to observe that agriculture, unique among
sectors of production, plays the dual role of providing an enormously
important source of livelihood and of producing the means of life. This dual
role requires that it receive special consideration.
 Keeping pace with demand

India has traditionally espoused this view in global debates on trade
policy, and should place a similar perspective at the heart of domestic
public policy. Despite the relative stagnation of agricultural productivity
in recent years and evidence of continued widespread undernourishment, as
Indian society has become more urbanised and more oriented toward
non-agricultural activities, Indian agriculture has largely kept pace with
the growing domestic market demand for food.

India’s largest contribution to the fulfilment of the right to food outside
its borders may be that it has succeeded in doing so and thus avoided
competing with food-importing countries. Its largest contribution to the
fulfilment of the right to food within its borders will be its embarking on
a path of development which reaches the mass of its people, thus making the
Right to Food Act an essential means but an ultimate irrelevance.

*Rahul Lahoti is an independent scholar (email: rahul.lahoti at gmail.com).
Sanjay G. Reddy is Associate Professor, Department of Economics, New School
for Social Research, New York (email: reddys1 at newschool.edu).*

More information about the reader-list mailing list