Sunday, January 15, 2012

Mouths, food, lip service

So, it is a new year, and I hope it is a good one. Many new things are happening. For one, there are so many new babies. At the time of writing this, our estimated population was 1,180,282,734 (according to the population calculating system at medindia.net). By the time I finished typing that sentence, it went up to 1,180,282,747.

It’s quite freaky actually. Try sitting still and staring at the numbers as they go up, up, up. Each minute adds 29 babies. The exercise is kind of hypnotic, and pointless of course. But imagine a new baby popping up in the room every other second. Here’s a baby! And here’s another! And one more…

And the question is: what are we going to do? They’re not numbers. They are all real, squalling babies. They want milk. Soon they’ll want roti and daal, rice and meat, eggs and fruit. We must think about how, and what, we’re going to feed them.

My grandma used to say that if God has given you a mouth, he will also give you food to eat. Which, I thought, was a bit rich, considering how many people die of hunger in this country. But even grandma, despite her faith, didn’t wait for God to fulfill his responsibilities. She actively fed as many mouths as she could and, sometimes, a few more than she could afford.

On a national scale, there are (at this moment) 1,180,283,395 mouths to feed. Some of us can afford to feed ourselves. But there are hundreds of millions — children, old people, sick people — who cannot take responsibility for feeding themselves over several years. And there are hundreds of millions of able-bodied adults who cannot find jobs, nor land on which to grow their own food.

So what are we going to do? Are we going to tell them: “Sorry, but we have no land to give you, not for food, not for housing. You were just born too late.”

Because currently, that seems to be our approach, as a nation. The government, as a representative of our larger collective responsibility, is required to interfere only in a crisis. Like, it might step in to save a malnourished infant, or distribute free food after a natural disaster.

Currently, we don’t ensure that every Indian has enough to eat. True, there are schemes. We have mid-day meals for small children in government-aided schools. We have the promise of 100 days of employment, in the villages at least. The state offers grain and sugar and kerosene at subsidised rates for the poor. (Now there are attempts to give cash instead, although the poor aren’t so happy with this arrangement. A hungry person needs a food guarantee, not a cash guarantee.)

However, we have not yet addressed the basic question: Do all Indians deserve to eat? Or do we believe that some of us deserve bottled water and broadband and truffles while some of us starve?
We must answer this question. Before we blame the government for crippling the economy through food subsidies; before we talk about how people may become lazy if they eat; before we discuss how farmers will be impacted, we must answer this question.

The National Food Security Bill has already been introduced in Parliament. Before it becomes law, we must answer this question. Because this Bill stops short of offering food security to all. There are problems with its categorisation of the poor. But it can be redrafted so that we move closer to the ideal: Food as a universal right. Because every citizen — all 1,180,285,856 of us — need to eat.

8 comments:

A. said...

"The hungry millions ask for one poem – invigorating food."

- M. K. Gandhi
(circa 1920 - 1930)

Kiran said...

I usually concur with your viewpoint, but I think this one is different (Or maybe I have been brainwashed by the media). Will you engage in a discussion with me about the following ?

1. I understand that we have millions of poor who do not get food to eat. I also understand the the govt. has a responsibility to feed its citizens, but don't you think that a responsible funding plan should be created and a way of making sure that the Govt earns enough money to make this happen along with the rest of the stuff that it is responsible for ? You know what they say about the road to hell being paved with good intentions.

2. Also, you say "A hungry person needs a food guarantee, not a cash guarantee". Why not? Why presume to make a choice for the person ? Is it not better to let him choose what he wants to spend his money on ? He can then chose to spend his money to eat or maybe visit a doctor for a problem or save it to put a kid through school. Why the presumption that people can't choose for themselves ?

I ask not to start an argument, but hopefully to understand where I make faulty assumptions.

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