India is going through what many may call ”interesting times”. In December 2011, the ruling party, United Progressive Alliance (UPA) introduced the National Food Security Bill in parliament. It consolidated several food programs that had proved successful in the country. However, the part that drew public attention was the grain distribution program which is arguably the most ambitious food program to be undertaken singly by any government in the world. It seeks to provide food (5kg grain/person/month) at subsidised prices to 800 million people at a cost of $22 billion annually. The identification of these 800 million people will be done by government officials. In a country where a quarter of the world’s hungry live in and has the second highest percentage of malnourished children, one might be forgiven for thinking this bill was going to be welcomed with open arms. Its reception has been quite the opposite. The opposition has claimed that the ruling party has just repackaged existing food programs and hurriedly introduced it to parliament. Furthermore, they are irked by the fact that the Prime Minister chose to use an ordinance to ensure the bill passed through the lower house. ”Ordinances are to be employed only in cases of emergency. What was so urgent that the bill could not wait 30 days to be discussed?” the opposition protested. All in all, it is the view of the opposition that this bill is UPA’s re-election strategy, designed to hoodwink India’s majority, the rural poor into electing UPA back to government come 2014.
In spite of all the dust this bill has raised, there remains a few voices that have chose to rise above it and offer sober judgment of the bill.
Jean Drèze, the co-author with Amartya Sen, of “An Uncertain Glory: India and Its Contradictions.” acknowledges that the bill might do some good only if there is sufficient political backing for it. However, he asserts that the battle for the right to food in India is far from over. Arvind Virmani, a former chief economic advisor to the government believes the bill will have little or no effect on malnutrition, poverty and hunger. This is because the most important cause of malnutrition in India is its abysmal state of public health, sanitation and hygiene. Most Indians do not have access to proper lavatories. This fact was wittingly captured by Amartya Sen during an interview by the Guardian when he remarked that the Indian government is more concerned with putting a mobile phone in an Indian’s hand than providing the same individual with a lavatory. Moreover, public knowledge on nutrition is wanting with the majority not possessing basic knowledge on nutrition matters.
While the debate rages on and the bill has been pruned first by the National Advisory Council and later by the government, the eastern state of Chhattisgarh has adopted the bill in its original form and is doing a commendable job in its implementation. Unlike the national food distribution system which is riddled with corruption and inefficiency, the new distribution system in Chhattisgarh state is regular, efficient and has a markedly lower leakage as compared to the national which stands at about 40 %. Majority of the poor households in Chhattisgarh are entitled to 34 kg of rice every month. The success of the system at the ground goes to show the extent to which the National Food Security bill can significantly reduce malnutrition levels in the country if implemented well. Ironically, Chhattisgarh state is ruled by the main opposition party, Bharatiya Janata.
I have always believed that developing nations such as Kenya can borrow a few lessons from India. For instance, the new form of governance in Kenya offers citizens opportunities to come up with solutions to problems that have bedeviled them since time immemorial. This a radical shift from the recent past where waiting for the central government to take action was the only option (Naomba Serikali Syndrome-NSS). Turkana County seems to lead the way by ensuring that the concept of food and nutrition security has been institutionalized. The county government has created a department whose sole mandate is to ensure that the inhabitants of Turkana County are food and nutrition secure.
In addition to developments at the county level, it is prudent to note that politics will always be closely linked with development. Whichever election period it is, there is always that one promise or proposed law that draws public attention; free Primary Education, free laptops for standard one students (the lowest class in Primary schooling in Kenya), etc. However, there is usually that promise concerning food and nutrition security that is often overlooked. In its manifesto, the ruling alliance, Jubilee, promised to put one million acres under irrigation to counter food insecurity in the country. Although faulted to only consider the supply side of food insecurity, it was a breakthrough of sorts. Efforts are being made to deliver on this promise but more remains to be done. The civil society, Non-governmental Organizations, the opposition, the media and the public at large need to keep the incumbent government on its toes thus ensuring that such noble programs are not drowned in political shenanigans.
The bill has now been passed by the Upper house in India. It now awaits accent by President Pranab Mukherjee before it becomes law. The global development players are watching India closely. If India succeeds in its implementation, it goes without saying that the program will be replicated elsewhere as well.