The Food Security Bill 2013 passed the lower rung of India’s parliament – the Lok Sabha recently and is on its way to becoming law, once it is authorized by the Upper House and the President. While the opposition sees this as yet another tactic by the ruling Congress party to garner popular support, reminiscent of Indira Gandhi’s “Garibi Hatao,” campaign, there is more to this debate than meets the eye. I will discuss the implications of the negative discourse surrounding this bill on India’s tradition of deliberative democracy. Also, I will briefly look at the notions of social welfare in India and what it means for its democratic norms.
To be clear, India is a democracy that has struggled to provide even the basic minimum welfare to its more vulnerable citizens. There is almost no safety net (in practical terms, apart from a barebones Public distribution system) for the poorest of the poor in India and societal norms dictate that family and wider networks support those who are in desperate need of help. While the state has failed to provide any form of welfare for the poor, there are a few schemes that aspire to provide this. One of them is the Food Security Bill that the UPA government promised to pass in their election campaign of 2009. While it has taken a long time and much deliberation to pass, the struggles before the country to feed its most vulnerable sections remains.
While debate and discussion are supposed to be enshrined in our democratic ethos, the bill seems to have brought out quite the opposite. The opposition parties boycotted the parliamentary session that sought to debate this bill and in effect tried to dismiss it. Murli Manhor Joshi, BJP’s senior leader called it a “Vote security bill,” referring it to the upcoming national elections, in 2014. Social media is awash with conspiracy theories, implicating corruption, nepotism and a thousand other ill (that surely exist) but not debating an issue and taking a dogmatic stance against a measure that will hurt the country as a whole is not very democratic, either.
The Hindu reported Amartya Sen, India’s eminent Economist as saying: ““You can have a different view, but not having a debate goes against the tradition of democracy. Allow arguments, rather than kill arguments, and not allowing Parliament to meet is killing arguments.” The media should “take an intelligent interest” in what was happening. “The media should, for instance, put out the cost of the Bill not being discussed and passed.”
As Jene Dreze points out in this insightful piece, there is nothing in the bill that is out of the ordinary. There are various benefits to the poor already in place and this bill merely takes it a step forward, to making access to food a “right.” Given the poverty levels in India and impact of inflation on food prices, this should not be a controversial move, as it is being made out to be. Dreze points out : “The bill is a modest initiative. It consolidates various food-related programs and entitlements that have made gradual headway during the last decade. Provisions of the bill dealing with food grain entitlements under the public distribution system have grabbed most of the attention. Children’s entitlements, however, are possibly more important. These include cooked midday meals for all school-going children and nutritious food (either a cooked meal or a take-home ration) for all children below the age of 6. These child nutrition programs are already in place; they are mandatory under Supreme Court orders. Permanent legal entitlements could strengthen and energize these initiatives.”
Dreze goes on to point out that the measures in the current bill are much smaller than what were originally planned. Ironically, the opposition party BJP has adopted parts of these provisions in Chattisgarh, a state that it rules and the Chattisgarh Food Security Bill seems to be quite robust, he adds. This bill includes provisions such as mid-day meal scheme in schools, a measure that has demonstrated benefits to children, not only in terms of educational outcomes, but also health outcomes. In terms of provisions, Dreze adds: “Under the bill, 75 percent of the rural population and 50 percent of the urban population will be entitled five kilograms of grains (rice, wheat or millets) per person per month at a nominal price. This means that about half of the recipients’ grain requirements will be taken care of by the Public Distribution System. Further, the roadmap for system reforms that has emerged from recent experience is partly included in the bill.”
What does the state owe its poor?
Anecdotally, the most vehement opposition to the bill is coming from the Middle classes- the ones who aren’t recipients of this system, as much as the poor. It is good to be reminded that individual development is correlated with societal development, as Sen has pointed out in his seminal work, Development as Freedom. To paraphrase Sen’s argument: There is a deep complementarity between individual agency and social arrangements in society. We must recognize both the individual freedom and the social forces that prevent it. To counter the problems that we face, we have to see individual freedom as a social commitment. He further points out that: “This book concentrates particularly on the roles and interconnections between certain crucial instrumental freedoms, including economic opportunities, political freedoms, social facilities, transparency guarantees, and protective security.”
While those who are opposed to the bill are opposed to it not for how it is implemented, but in its totality – as an idea of a “handout” to the poor. This seems to be against the very ethos of what a democracy is. While the idea of “freedom,” does not make any sense if a significant number of the citizens are starving, critics of social welfare policies point out that this leaves the country impoverished and is a burden on tax payers.
The Food Security Bill 2013 is a step in the right direction and makes up for some of the obligations that the state owes its poorest citizens. Attacking it purely on ideological or political grounds goes against democratic ethos and basic understanding of the social contract in a democracy. This debate, is also, in effect, about the role that the state will play in social welfare provision in a Neoliberal context. While the ghosts of India’s socialist past hang over this debate, and analysts conflate basic social welfare with ‘handouts’ to ‘appease’ the poor.