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Opinion

Food rights and the welfare squeeze

India may be economically prospering, but it has more undernourished people than all of sub-Saharan Africa combined.

Last Modified: 07 Apr 2013 11:10
Bhaskar Vira

Bhaskar Vira is senior lecturer in environment and development at the Department of Geography, University of Cambridge, and a Fellow of Fitzwilliam College.
David Nally

David Nally is a political geographer and lecturer at the University of Cambridge.
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Around 46 per cent of all Indian children under the age of 3 are too small for their age, 47 per cent are underweight and at least "16 per cent are wasted", according to a UNICEF report [AFP]

This week marks the beginning of a monumental reconfiguration of the social contract that underpins the British welfare state. The overhaul of budget and the remit of existing welfare programmes mark a significant departure from social attitudes. The moral distinction between "skivers" and "strivers" - assiduously promoted by Conservatives such as Steve Hinton and Iain Duncan Smith - has now been sharpened and given legal form. 

The most vulnerable to these changes are those at the bottom of Britain's class divide, the 15 percent of the population who make up what has recently been defined as the "precariat". This group is characterised by low earnings and savings, and typically lacking the formal education and skills that are necessary for social mobility in the modern world. 

While British society, reeling under forced austerity programmes, revamps its attitudes toward social security, public opinion in India is divided over a recent legislative initiative which proposes to significantly increase public commitment to welfare, following cabinet approval of a landmark Food Security Bill that creates legally binding obligations on the country to provide food for all. 

The Indian Food Security Bill is an outcome of the 11-plus years of fight over the Right to Food, which had led to several litigations, public mobilisation and pressure on the government to accept its legal obligations towards the most vulnerable groups in the country. 

The Supreme Court interpreted the Right to Food as a constituent element of the Right to Life, and the government committed itself to implement Food Security Bill after the 2009 elections. The legislation, which received cabinet approval, is an attempt to fulfil this obligation.    

Electoral gimmick

However, critics of the Bill have been quick to dismiss it as an electoral gimmick - politically ambitious, but economically misguided. As the Indian finance minister struggles to contain the country's fiscal deficit, questions are being raised about whether an expensive programme of subsidised food distribution is affordable, and how sensible it is to use public funds.

Commentators also suggest that widespread corruption and inefficiency in India's public distribution system will mean that good intentions are unlikely to translate into actual improvements in food security. They propose alternatives such as direct cash transfers to the vulnerable poor.  

On the other hand, those who support the legislation argue that the food subsidy remains below 1 percent of India's GDP. They contrast this with other areas of public spending, such as tax holidays, exemptions from export duties, low land prices and concessional lending terms that are routinely gifted to the corporate sector in a bid to procure a "business-friendly" environment.

They question the logic behind siphoning off public money to the fat cats in the corporate sector under the vague and unproven notion that some of it will "trickle down" to those who need it most.   

While there is a legitimate discussion about the detail - including a debate over universal coverage and whether it is more efficacious than the proposed targeted approach which focuses on what the Bill calls "priority" households - there is a clear need to address the scandal of persistent malnutrition in the country.

Despite the fact that India has experienced record levels of economic prosperity over the last 20 years, the country is estimated to have more undernourished people than all of sub-Saharan Africa combined. Though the prevalence of malnutrition varies across Indian states - and the geography of hunger is quite important - at the aggregate level, it is women and children who are most severely affected.

According to a UNICEF dossier, "around 46 per cent of all children under the age of three are too small for their age, 47 per cent are underweight and at least 16 per cent are wasted". 

 Inside Story - Horsemeat scandal:
Who is to be blamed?

As the same report notes, "malnutrition in children is not determined by food intake alone; it is also influenced by the quality of care for the child and pregnant mother" as well as access to health and welfare services.

In other words, "food security" is as much an ethical argument about social provisioning as it is a debate about sourcing more calories - a point made by Harsh Mander, one of the Indian Supreme Court's Commissioners on the Right to Food, in his recent book Ash in the Belly.

Clearly, even if the Right to Food is accepted as a fundamental moral principle and litmus test of any civilised society, the question of how best to transform this "meta-right" into a legally guaranteed "institutional right" continues to divide public opinion. Critics are correct to question the effectiveness of India's public distribution system in the last 60 years, and they have cried for a massive reform before implementing the proposed Food Security Bill. 

But, are the days of public procurement, storage and distribution over? Should intervention in food and agricultural markets be consigned to the scrap-heap of India's socialist past? 

Food industry

There are several reasons to be cautious about a blind faith in the efficacy of food markets - the horsemeat scandal that has engulfed the British food industry being only the most recent cautionary tale. Relying on the private sector to source and distribute food from increasingly complex supply chains has proven to be unreasonably risky, especially when concerns over corporate profitability, shareholder value and pressures on the bottom line dominate business decision-making. 

The food system needs to reflect the co-dependent interests of consumers, producers, suppliers, retailers and the state - bound together in a web of relationships. There is little reason to expect that a deregulated food industry will serve the greater public good. To paraphrase Karl Polanyi, a privately operated food system risks turning society into a "mere adjunct" of the market. 

For India, lessons are clear - leaving the delivery of food security solely to self-regulating private markets would be foolhardy. The only viable option is to strengthen and reinforce the public commitment to ensure freedom from hunger and malnutrition, while harnessing the power of logistical sophistication of private supply chains where necessary. 

While private supply chains have proven most efficient in responding to price signals, they have yet to prove that they are able to provide the cash-strapped "precariat" with vital provisions. 

By the same token, excessive state interference in the procurement and distribution of food can lead to corruption and inefficiency. A "dual system" of public and private procurement might curb the worst excesses of both approaches - the national Food Security Bill provides the Indian government a real opportunity to demonstrate how such a partnership should work. 

These are difficult times for the vulnerable and poor. The language of austerity and "responsible welfare" now casts a long shadow over public discourse and is in danger of painting talk of "rights" as little more than "nonsense upon stilts", as Jeremy Bentham famously complained.  

These efforts to stigmatise the poor recall earlier moral crusades against the "undeserving" poor and must not be allowed to suppress a much deeper debate about the place of social welfare and our collective aspirations as a society. Whether it is towards India's millions who remain hungry, or the increasingly squeezed bottom third of British society who will face the brunt of the coalition government's plans, our shared social contract must not be forgotten. 

Bhaskar Vira is senior lecturer in environment and development at the Department of Geography, and David Nally is senior lecturer in human geography, University of Cambridge, and both are fellows of Fitzwilliam College. The issues raised in this article will be debated at Kings Place, London, on Monday at the third debate in a series organised by the University of Cambridge's Strategic Research Initiative in Global Food Security.

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The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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