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Note: This article was written by me on November 19, 2011, when the Food Security Bill was still being worked on by the National Advisory Council. I had posted this in 2011, but since the Bill has recently been passed by the Lok Sabha, I thought I should share it again. The Bill has changed a bit from what was being reported about it in 2011, but the larger question of balancing food security with population control remains. 

 

The National Food Security Bill is getting the final touches from the National Advisory Council, headed by UPA President Mrs. Sonia Gandhi. From various media reports and Government statements, I gathered that the Bill guarantees food at nominal prices to the poor. To be precise, it promises 35 kg of grains at Re 1/kg for millets, Rs 2/kg for wheat and Rs 3/kg for rice. One would say that it was high time such a law was made that is equivalent to a ‘Right to Food!’ I say this because a majority of India’s rural and urban poor get hardly enough food to remain alive. It seems odd that the world’s fourth-largest and second-fastest growing economy is still facing problems like large-scale hunger and malnourishment. India suffers a severe problem of malnutrition among children & mothers. As of today, a staggering 47% of children show signs of being undernourished. Much as we try to wish them away, these problems are set to intensify and worsen in the coming years because our population is growing as fast as ever.

The annual growth rate of population is as much as 1.3%. While this figure might appear diminutive, it actually means that about 1.61 crore people will be added to India’s population within the next year! The growth of India’s resources can never match the rate of growth of her population. In such times, I wonder, shouldn’t the emergency (pun not intended) measures involve family planning and other population control measures rather than guaranteeing that to the poor, which is going to act as catalyst to further growth of population? When you provide a forest fire with fuel wood unconditionally, it results in the complete destruction of that ecosystem. The problem at hand though is not as simple as I have put it.

The country is facing a crisis of priorities. Provide a catalyst to the growing population at the cost of India’s future development or urgently check population growth at the cost of public support? In a patriarchal society like India’s, an orthodox family’s yearning for a male child often results in more than five offsprings per family even in modern times when the norm in cities is about two children per family. Oftentimes, a child is considered to be a bonus as he may prove to be an extra hand to earn for the family. So, how, in a democracy, can even responsible Governments ask the poor to procreate less, without antagonizing a sizable population of the country? But I do not think at this stage we have any option but to do what is absolutely necessary.

The other problem I have with this Bill is that the amount of grain it promises and the price at which it is promised does not look like a sustainable option to me. For how long can Indian land produce large amounts of grain, if each year it has to feed more than a crore people more? Indian agriculture is in a mess today. Farmers in the Central India region especially, are suffering major land issues and have sunk deep in debt. Farmer suicides are rampant. Middlemen freely exploit them, buying very cheap and selling very high in the markets. In short, there is very little impetus to agricultural growth and no clear sustainable plan for growth of agricultural produce. There does not seem to be any vision on the Government’s part to conserve agricultural land and protect it from being converted to industrial and housing area. The next best option, when domestic production fails is to import the required food. But, when there is global food shortage, where will the food come from?

The National Food Security Bill is therefore, a disastrous step. I am not against feeding the poor, but it has to be done in a different way, through various non-Government channels (but through Government funding). At the same time however, the need of the hour is to expand our population control measures and not give ‘guarantees’ of food to the poor for eternity (simply, because it is not viable).

With this, I want to raise the larger question of political shortsightedness that has prevailed in this country for the second time in our independent history. The consequences of the first such wave of shortsighted political decisions were averted by the 1991 liberalisation as it brought millions of dollars of foreign investment into the country. Actions like repeated loan waivers, food security Bills and the siphoning off of billions of rupees of public money is some day going to cost us heavily. Not only am I worried because there may not be a saviour this time, but also because mass starvation and malnourishment in future seems inevitable!

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