A platform for the poor

Print edition : February 14, 2003

Economist and Nobel laureate Amartya Sen addressing the public hearing in Delhi on January 10. - ANU PUSHKARANA

A public hearing organised in Delhi by the Right to Food Campaign, a nation-wide network of public-spirited individuals and organisations, brings out the survival struggles of impoverished people in diverse parts of the country.

ARID statistics may tell their own tale, and perhaps afford opportunity for artful interpretations that obscure underlying realities. Hunger and undernourishment in India though, represent a gathering crisis that could soon assume catastrophic dimensions. In three weeks of bitter cold and enveloping gloom in the northern region of the country in January, a thousand or more of the poor and the indigent are known to have died. They will enter official records as anonymous statistics, nameless victims of extreme weather stress. But there is little question that their vulnerability to climatic extremities is a direct consequence of nutritional deficiencies.

The cold wave deaths, in other words, are little else than another manifestation of the life of deprivation that millions in this country continue to lead, while the focus of official policy remains obsessively confined to the trappings of a globalised economy that serve a narrow social elite.

Among the many who raised their voices at the outrage were Swami Agnivesh and Valson Thampu, two men of different religious persuasions, united in fidelity to their respective faiths and joined in basic humanism. "Does the right to life entitle citizens to protection only from terrorists?" they asked in an ironic reference to the singular fixation of the Central government today. The answer is self-evident, since the "moral high ground to fight terrorism must be derived from an uncompromising commitment to protect life from every threat that imperils it". And that was not all by way of the harsh reproach of state policy that the cold wave deaths embody: "Deaths due to cold or starvation should be deemed a darker blot on the state than the toll of terrorism. They are predictable and preventable. We know who are the enemies and where the victims are. We have the resources required to avert these tragedies. But nothing is done and the toll continues to rise. That leaves us with only one inference: we have no intrinsic value for human life unless it is embellished by caste or class labels."

Early in January, the poor in their hundreds gathered from diverse parts of the country on the grounds of Delhi University to share experiences of the daily grind they have to endure to just subsist on the margins of physical survival. They had few embellishments by way of caste or class labels, but they were part of a growing tide of political assertion by the poor, now intent as never before on securing their rights under the law of the land.

The jan sunwai, or public hearing, was the latest event in the Right to Food Campaign, a growing nation-wide network that has stepped up its efforts in the context of the acute scarcity conditions afflicting large parts of the country.

It was a bitterly cold morning in Delhi and with the extreme weather having persisted for over a week the media had begun to bury accounts of human suffering and death in the less conspicuous nooks. But the questions posed at the public hearing were scarcely blunted by the cold. Neither was the sheer poignancy of the testimonies delivered by individuals from as far afield as East Champaran in Bihar, South 24-Parganas in West Bengal, Baran in Rajasthan, Bolangir in Orissa and other districts in the country's growing zones of scarcity.

The Right to Food Campaign has grown over the last two years from the kernel of a public interest petition filed in the Supreme Court by the People's Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL). Obscured in the aggregate monsoon estimates, vast areas had suffered through successive years of severe rainfall deficiency. The PUCL petition in this context demanded that the accumulating stocks in the government's food warehouses be used to meet the endemic conditions of scarcity and deprivation in the country.

After four hearings, the Supreme Court in September 2001, issued notice to the Union government and 16 States, demanding explanations for their failure to identify the "below poverty line" (BPL) families earmarked as special beneficiaries of the targeted public distribution system (TPDS). At two subsequent hearings, the court expressed its dissatisfaction with the rate of progress. And in November 2001, it asked the Union government to "indicate" how it would ensure that the welfare and food security schemes it had formulated would actually reach the intended beneficiaries.

Simultaneously, it directed every State and Union Territory to start serving mid-day meals with specified nutritive value, for children in government and government-aided primary schools, for a minimum period of 200 days a year.

In March 2002, the court invited the responses of various State governments to the proposal that they introduce an employment guarantee scheme, which would in the final instance, be an iron-clad guarantee of food security.

Two months and four hearings later, it spelt out detailed directions on the implementation of various schemes, and appointed two former civil servants as "commissioners" who would look into any persisting grievances that were not amenable to established procedures of redress.

Returning to this order after a lapse of some months, the Supreme Court in November 2002, laid out clear procedures of accountability. Every State was required to publicise the details of the court's order in gram panchayat offices, school buildings and fair price shops within eight weeks.

Governments were also obliged to cooperate with any requests for information that the court-appointed commissioners may make on them, with respective Chief Secretaries being directly accountable for any failure to comply. It would be the "duty" of every State and Union Territory, the court warned, to ensure that deaths owing to starvation and malnutrition did not take place. And if the commissioners were to report to the court that deaths owing to either cause had indeed taken place, then the Chief Secretaries of the States concerned could be called to account.

Summarily disposing of the plea of an acute resource crunch entered by various governments, the court directed them to "cut the flab" in their spending programmes to generate funds for the basic nutritional needs of the people. Financial constraints, in other words, could not be an alibi for evading the essential duties of the State. The constitutional underpinning is provided by Article 47: "The State shall regard the raising of the level of nutrition and the standard of living of its people and the improvement of public health among its primary duties." It was a central premise of the PUCL petition that the right to food was derived from the right to life guarantee that Article 21 of the Constitution enshrined. This, in turn, implied that people who were too poor to buy their own food, needed to be ensured minimum means of subsistence by the state. In circumstance that threatened seriously to impair the right to food, the state was obliged to provide sustenance, by way either of direct food aid or access to gainful employment. Over successive hearings, the Supreme Court has moved a long way towards acknowledging this position, though it is yet to make a definitive affirmation.

SUCH a formulation, were it to emerge, would be a significant new weapon in the hands of the poor. The Right to Food Campaign though is disinclined to wait, simply because practical realities demand the recruitment of peoples' power in the struggle. Without the essential element of public pressure, even the most enlightened judicial intervention would remain little else than academic interest. In constructing this element of the campaign, the tradition of the jan sunwai, which was pioneered by the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS) of Rajasthan as part of the struggle for the right to information, has been a rich source of inspiration. Through last year, four public hearings were held by the Right to Food Campaign in places as far afield as Shankargarh in Uttar Pradesh, Palamau in Jharkhand, Kalahandi in Orissa and Kelwada in Rajasthan. The Delhi gathering was the first to be held in an urban area, and secured the participation of the Nobel laureate economist Amartya Sen and the eminent Bengali writer and passionate chronicler of the struggles of the poor, Mahashweta Devi.

The activists of the MKSS and PUCL, who have for some time now been coordinating their campaign activities, believe that the institution of the jan sunwai serves several purposes. It creates an awareness of legal entitlements among otherwise disempowered citizens and endows them with the confidence that collectively they can gain a voice in public affairs. It enforces accountability on the official machinery by its public and participative character. The jan sunwai is concurrently a platform for mobilisation and for political education. It creates an awareness of local structures of power that are often seriously at odds with the formal requirements of state policy and invariably subvert its stated purposes.

IN his brief address to the Delhi jan sunwai, Amartya Sen pointed out that India has the largest incidence of chronic undernourishment and endemic hunger, both in absolute and relative terms. The problem was "gigantic" in its dimensions. In a "medical and social sense", Sen pointed out, India's high levels of maternal undernourishment directly account for the high proportion of underweight babies born. And these babies, in turn, have a much higher predisposition to cardio-vascular disease in their adult years.

India's relative immunity to the kind of catastrophic famine that periodically visits parts of Africa, Sen observed, was a consequence of its adoption of democratic systems of participation. Yet, the job remained incomplete, as the high levels of chronic hunger testified. This problem, however, could be dealt with in the same manner, through democratic means of gathering, organising and protesting.

Activists at the jan sunwai in Delhi pointed out that India has more than one tonne of foodgrain in storage for every BPL household. This accumulation of stocks has been taking place all through the 1990s, though a rapid acceleration began in 1997 when the Central government, in its misguided zeal to cut the food subsidy, switched from the conventional objective of maintaining nutritional security through food price stability to a system of "targeting". Several of the years since have seen adverse weather conditions in large parts of the country and heightened nutritional deficiencies. The growth in food stocks, in other words, is no index of plenty, but of growing and endemic hunger.

It is a measure of the callousness of the official response that the volume of grain that is lifted for the TPDS has been consistently on the decline. And confronted with the dilemma of rising grain procurement and diminishing offtake, the government formulated a policy of highly subsidised exports. Though initiated earlier, the policy of subsidised exports was systematised in March 2002, when the Union Cabinet authorised the Food Corporation of India (FCI) to fix an appropriate price for exports of rice and wheat, subject to the condition that it would not be below the BPL issue price.

In the first five months of the current financial year, the volume of rice lifted from official stocks for the TPDS has been 4.05 million tonnes. The volume of exports has been 3.92 million tonnes. And if 2.90 million tonnes of wheat was lifted for the TPDS, exports have claimed no less than 1.66 million tonnes. With multinational corporations serving as conduits and intermediaries, FCI has been exporting grain at a price only marginally above that borne by the country's poor, and far below the costs of procurement, handling and storage that it bears. The irrationality of the policy in a context of growing food deprivation needs little further comment.

Even if it has managed to secure some measure of enlightened judicial support, the Right to Food Campaign still has a long way to go in breaking down barriers of official cynicism and apathy. Its success could be measured by the degree to which it is able to coax the state to shed its approach to food policy as a series of ad hoc responses to crises situations, and institutionalise a system of legal entitlements to food through the right to work. But beyond this objective, the campaign would need to look at the rapid erosion of social and environment assets over the past decade, and at the devastation of the economic autonomy of certain communities through processes of indebtedness and institutional neglect.

Moving beyond the philosophy of the dole, there is no assurance of food security for the long term, other than the regeneration of these assets as resources of the community that today's poor above all would have rights over.

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