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Jul 05, 2013 at 05:04pm IST

Govt needs to cut subsidies which benefit the rich: Harsh Mander

For a nation which accounts for more hungry and poor people than any other in the world, for a country where the number of malnourished children is more than that of 26 countries of sub-Saharan Africa, the need for Food Security law can't be debated. But as with everything else in India, implementation will be the key. Social activist Harsh Mander joined IBNLive readers for an interaction on the pros and cons of the Food Security law.

Q. "Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime" Don't you think the Congress party is more interested in "giving" the fish rather than "teaching" how to fish thereby keeping people weak and dependent rather than making them empowered? Asked by: Abhishek Dixit

A. The idea is not of an either/or. Of course we have to struggle for lasting solutions to poverty and hunger. But while we sort that out, every second child is still malnourished. Her body and brain are not being formed today. So until we sort these bigger structural issues out, the law places duties on the state to provision food to those who are most food vulnerable and deprived.

Govt needs to cut subsidies which benefit the rich: Harsh Mander

Social activist Harsh Mander joined IBNLive readers for an interaction on the Food Security law.

Q. While civil supplies is a state subject why is the centre enforcing it as a national Law when states like Tamil Nadu are far ahead of what is being attempted to achieve in states like Bihar? Asked by: sundar1950in

A. The central law will offer a floor of entitlements. The best states like Tamil Nadu and Chhattisgarh are fee to offer more than this floor.

Q. Punishing the performer seems to be the motive of this ordinance. Tamil Nadu will now have lesser allotment of food from centre is what the Chief Minister says. Is it true? If so why is being done? Asked by: sundar1950in

A. As I said, Tamil Nadu is free to offer more than the entitlements guaranteed by the state law. For example, if any state wants under MG NREGA(Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act) to offer more than 100 days with its own resources, who can stop it in a federal structure? But no state can offer less than 100 days. Likewise for the Food Bill entitlements.

Q. Does the government at center and state levels have machinery to effectively implement this scheme which is going to cost heavy to ex-chequer? How can we be sure that this will not lead to another scam and a national disaster? Asked by: Abhinav

A. The idea of a legal right to food is to create a legally enforceable duty on the part of states to implement the law. Governments will of course need to gear themselves up to fulfill these legal obligations. We saw this gradual gearing up so as to implement RTE ( Right to Education), RTI( Right To Information) and NREGA(National Rural Employment Guarantee Act). These are still far from perfect, but it is better than prevailed before legal duties were created. We can expect the same to happen over time with the Food Rights law, incrementally - the only was improvements in governance are accomplished.

Q. Seeing the adulteration done even in non subsidized food, who will make sure that the food content distributed will meet the quality required? The past record by any government is not impressive in this regard. Asked by: Abhinav

A. Quality of food is not explicitly covered by the new law, and this is a gap. But it is still covered under grievance redress systems. However we should try for its explicit inclusion when the law is debated.

Q. I am sure these are good ideas even though major portion will go to the wrong hands. Stream line can be done with Adhaar and other identifications in the days to come. Asked by: Prathap

A. Food entitlements will have to couple with stronger transparency and people's monitoring systems, like social audits. This alone can reduce leakages.

Q. What do you think will be impact on labour costs? Will higher labour costs as a result of this law impede growth? Asked by: amar jyoti

A. I feel better nourished labourer will be more productive, and the economy will benefit as a result.

Q. Food security bill is net result of corruption, this government has done for last five years. It is trying to hide behind this bill and save its face. Asked by: SRINIVASS

A. I will not speculate on the political motives behind the Food law. But I am convinced that in itself the law is historic, because for the first time it creates legal duties enforceable in courts for governments to ensure that none sleep hungry.

Q. Lakhs of crores of rupees if spent on creating jobs could have improved the economy and improved GDP. This would have been a long time solution to the problem of malnutrition? Asked by: sundar1950in

A. I agree that job creation will help reduce vulnerability to hunger. But the data shows that the period of high economic growth has been one of nearly jobless growth. MG NREGA has been helpful where implemented well. But we must recognise that some vulnerable groups are or should be outside work - like old people and children, the destitute, and pregnant and nursing mothers - and they would need special food transfers.

Q. The law will grant a minimum food to improve the malnutrition in population. But at whose cost? Asked by: sundar1950in

A. In evaluating the cost, please compare with the cost of hunger and malnutrition, of every second child malnourished, meaning that for half the young workers in the economy, their bodies and brains are not developing to full potential. What are the costs of that? What indeed is the cost of a destitute mother trying to teach her children how to sleep hungry? Please remember that 230 million people sleep hungry every night.

Q. Noble prize winner Amartya Sen has openly supported the move of Food security. He has no political axe to grind. Why no one from academia in India has stood by Sen. Asked by: sundar1950in

A. There is wide support from segments of the academia for the Food law, but other segments oppose this. This I think is a healthy and important debate.

Q. Which are the states not providing even a gram of grain to the BPL population, who will get benefited out of the ordinance? Asked by: sundar1950in

A. The PDS is functioning to some degree in all states. In near universal states like Tamil Nadu and Chhattisgarh, the law will not add more numbers, but it may add is some cases to quantity. But in many states, there will be quite an expansion in coverage.

Q. Getting the Ordinance passed shows the weakness of the UPA 2. In spite of opposition from their own allies, supporters rushing this through is worthwhile? Asked by: sundar1950in

A. I would support a full and deep debate in Parliament before the ordinance gets converted into a law, so as to strengthen the law which has many gaps still.

Q. Sir, who will ensure the proper implementation of the scheme? What about the accountability aspect? Will it be wrong to say that the scheme is being pushed vehemently because of forthcoming elections? Asked by: Birabrata

A. I agree that there is too little time before elections for a full roll-out of the law. I agree that the haste today is probably because the elections are looming. I wish it had come much earlier. There are accountability mechanisms in the law, but these are not as strong as in RTI( Right To Information). This is a flaw which I hope is remedied when the law is discussed in Parliament.

Q. Every State has its own Public Distribution System (PDS) model. Some are flawed (BIMARU states : Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, and Uttar Pradesh) and some are handled to precision (States like Tamil Nadu, Gujarat). Will this Food Security Law be overarching to the existing PDS model and if yes, is it better than the existing ones in states like Tamil Nadu, Gujarat. Asked by: Karthik Subramanian Kumarasamy

A. Already answered please.

Q. Sir, Problem of implementation can be overcome by involving people. Use of IT and internet extensively can check the malaise. Asked by: S ESHWAR

A. Chhattisgarh went in for end to end computerisation in PDS, and this helped greatly enhance accountability and transparency and reduce corruption. Even more important is regular people's audits, informed review by PDS consumers, parents of children in ICDS and schools, pregnant mothers and so on.

Q. At one side government is saying to cut down the subsidies and on the other side they are providing subsidies through Food Security Law. Please comment on this. Asked by: Rahul Bhandari

A. Government does need to cut subsidies which benefit the rich and middle classes. Each budget for instance offers more than 5 lakh crore rupees tax holidays to the corporate sector. But I think that public spending is necessary for people's basic rights, including food, clean water, sanitation, health care, education and housing. In addition, we need to support the small farmer, who is sadly today among the most food-deprived people in this country.

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