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Food for Vote: India's Food Security Sham

The food security bill that aims to feed 800 million Indians is a sham hammered into existence by the Congress party eyeing the poor as a big vote base. Blinded by the greed of narrow political gains the ordinance is just symbolic and also anachronistic, writes Siddharth Srivastava.

There is little doubt that billions in tax money have been and will continue to be embezzled by avaricious middle men, contractors, petty officials and traders, the human hyenas adept at scavenging defunct, failed and useless government anti-poverty schemes over decades now.

Food security only sounds electorally good, has a catchy ring that Congress party president Sonia Gandhi hopes will blunt competitors such as Narendra Modi. In the meantime, the humongous flawed food distribution exercise will lead to more fiscal impudence resulting in inflation that hurts the poor the most. The food bill has wrongly assumed that India is still a nation of impoverished, dying, destitute and beggars who would perish without a few extra bowls of rice.

By similar logic, India should still be a land of snake charmers and not software engineers, or bare-footed kabaddi players and not world beating boxing, wrestling and badminton champs. By similar logic, India should not be a major oil importer, car, two-wheeler, or tractor market due to the pre-dominance of bullock carts on roads. By similar logic, fake encounters by security agencies and cricket match-fixing should be figments of imagination.

It is true that there are still pockets of people that subsist at starvation levels that need targeted state support. Experts say this is about 2% of India’s population, which is a big number, given India’s demography, but certainly not 800 million. There are many more that seek to look beyond filling their tummies. I have been speaking to a cross-section of menials that service urban Indian households, the high flying sahibs and memsahibs, that avail expensive gym and swimming pool memberships to incorporate some physical activity in their hectic routines.

These cheap, second-hand cellphone, Ekta Kapoor-serial obsessed drivers, maids, cooks, security guards, rickshaw pullers, pour into cities in the millions seeking a livelihood. They are categorized as urban poor, a subsistence level below the lower middle class. They belong to villages and rural hinterlands of Jharkhand, Bihar, Odisha, Bengal, Madhya Pradesh and Himachal Pradesh.

A lot of them are construction workers, carpenters, electricians, plumbers, painters, polishers, car cleaners, masons etc. Though these folks exist on the fringes of urban life, they are not short on aspiration. They universally assert they can very well afford to feed their families back home.

That’s the way it is in villages and small towns in their area as young men and women find casual employment in India’s many cities that have turned into semi-urban slums due to improper infrastructure and overcrowding.  As I have been repeatedly told, the biggest challenge these unskilled, often illiterate, menial work force face is to ensure their kids, the next generation, upgrade to better living standards and vocations beyond figuring out a cell phone and changing ring tones. They don’t want their children to grow up to be cooks and maids, washing unclean dishes and mopping floors.

They want their kids to be educated, healthy, safe and not malnourished (this is not the same as starving). They cannot bring their families to cities as the cost of living is high, but they want the government to deliver on good schools, law and order, health services, civic amenities, so their kids back home are able to compete in the larger world.

They want their progeny to learn English in schools and colleges, know about computers and become engineers, doctors, private sector executives, officers, like the memsahibs and sahibs, or at least find respectable employment in sectors such as telecom, hospitality, tourism, sales and retail.

This large section wants to look beyond filled bellies that the government wants to fill more. Here is where the food security bill fails.

It is akin to the state claiming a communication revolution by offering those who already own mobile phones, a free handset. The food security bill falls short on both counts – the hungry will never receive the rice due to pilferage, while the well-fed will never value the rice, in their quest for enriched milk, fruit, vegetables and protein sources for their kids. But, then the aim of the food bill is one vote for one bowl of rice, imagined or real.

Siddharth Srivastava is India correspondent for Siliconeer. He lives in New Delhi.


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POLITICS: India's Food Security Sham
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