Chennai: India, the land of paradoxes, has yet another paradox in its long list. But this one is not pleasant; government does not advertise it for tourism development. It could as well have swept this issue under the carpet, and pretend that it never existed. The paradox, of ‘Huge stock of food grains rotting in government controlled Food Corporation of India’s (FCI) warehouses while masses of poor people go to sleep hungry,’ represents the soft underbelly of the thriving economy, slated to grow at 9% or more annually. According to an estimate, a staggering 25 percentage of people in India (with a population of 1.173 billion) go hungry everyday.
Challenging this insensitivity on government’s part, People’s Union for Civil Liberties, Rajasthan held a petition in the Supreme Court (SC) in April 2001 (PUCL Vs Union of India and Others, Writ Petition [Civil] 196 of 2001), demanding that ‘the country’s gigantic food stocks should be used without delay to protect people from hunger and starvation.’ This writ petition led to series of prolonged public interest litigation, and after may other petitions concerning corruption in Public Distribution System (PDS) and other food security related issues, SC on 31 Aug 2010 gave a directive to the Ministry of Agriculture, that rotting grains be given freely to the poor people. Reacting to the directive, Prime Minister of India Manmohan Singh said, “The government will do all it can to provide affordable food to those below the poverty line but cannot implement the Supreme Court’s order to give free food grains to the poor,” and advised SC not to enter into ‘the realm of policy formulation.’ PM’s response triggered a huge outcry from the public as well as media, blaming the government for skirting its responsibilities and as being insensitive to the plight of poor people.
Judicial activism apart, owing to the sensitivity of the issue, United Progressive Alliance’s (UPA) National Advisory Committee (NAC) headed by Sonia Gandhi decided to work out the feasibility of utilizing the vast food grain stock amassed at the FCI warehouses to address the issue of hunger. It also sent a draft Food Security bill to Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) as early as June 2009, but the bill that was approved by the Empowered Group of Ministers (EGoM) failed to meet the expectations of not only people but also NAC Chairperson. With this a huge debate started between Government of India and NAC, along with debates in the public sphere. The proposals that the NAC had put forward were termed infeasible by the Government. Even Planning Commission along with government said, (to name an example) that no legal guarantees can be give to people in above poverty line (APL) regarding food security. But the grim reality of the food security debate is that with all this legal and political wrangling, the fate of poor people is still precarious. The pace at which Indian government moves during the course of taking a critical decision is well known. We can only hope that good sense prevails in the government for the benefit of poor people.
- NAC’s compromise proposes wider food security coverage (thehindu.com)
- Categorise households for legal entitlement of foodgrain: NAC (topinews.com)