Speaking to an enthralled audience of 1,500 students and faculty at IIT (Delhi) , Nobel laureate Amartya Sen said that the idea of the National Food Security Bill was “a matter of appreciation and support”, and that the tabling of the Bill in Parliament was in itself a big achievement. However, he also drew attention to various shortcomings of the Bill and argued for it to be strengthened, particularly in terms of children’s entitlements.
Also in this panel discussion on “Hunger and Nutrition: Time to Act” were Montek Singh Ahluwalia (Deputy Chairman, Planning Commission), Shantha Sinha (Chairperson, National Commission for the Protection of Child Rights) and Shyama Singh (NREGA Sahayata Kendra, Latehar District, Jharkhand). Shyama Singh, an Adivasi activist from Latehar District in Jharkhand, opened the discussion with a spirited account of people’s struggles for their basic entitlements, including employment under NREGA, land titles and the Public Distribution System. She paid homage to her friends Lalit Mehta and Niyamat Ansari who have lost their lives in this struggle.
Recalling the critical importance of early childhood for lifetime health and wellbeing, Sen deplored the fact that children’s entitlements under the food security bill were so weak. Recent Supreme Court orders on midday meals and the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS), he said, have made an important contribution to the health and nutrition of children. The Bill, he felt, should not dilute these entitlements in any way.
Sen also stressed that health, nutrition and elementary education were important in themselves as well as for long-run economic success. Neglecting children is not only unjust but also an economic blunder.
Shanta Sinha, chairperson of the National Commission for the Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR) also pleaded the case of young children and criticized the National Food Security Bill for giving them a raw deal. She took issue with the Parliamentary Standing Committee report on the Bill, which suggests replacing children’s entitlements with an additional allocation of 5 kgs of foodgrains per month for pregnant women under the PDS. The word “anganwadi”, she pointed out, is not even mentioned in the revised version of the Bill, despite the critical importance of ICDS services for children. Shantha Sinha also criticized the proposal to restrict maternity entitlements in the Bill to the first two children.
Amartya Sen recalled that the principles of free and universal provision of essential health, education and nutrition services were part of the country’s vision at the time of Independence. It can be found, for instance, in the Bhore Committee Report on health, 1946. The country needs to revive this broad view of the links between human capability, economic success, and social justice.
Professor Sen recalled in particular three advantages of universal coverage when it comes to basic public services and social facilities. First, it makes these facilities a matter of citizens’ right, and avoids any exclusion. Second, it ensures that powerful and influential people have a stake in them. Third, universal coverage helps to avoid corruption.
Montek Singh Ahluwalia agreed that malnutrition among children was indeed a national shame, as the Prime Minister himself put it a year ago, and gave credit to civil society for sensitizing the government to this issue. Also a matter of shame, he said, was the state of nutrition statistics, with the latest comprehensive data on child health and nutrition going back to the Third National Family Health Survey, conducted in 2005-6. He stressed the need for a range of interventions, related for instance to immunization, breastfeeding, drinking water and sanitation.
He said that the government was also committed to a Public Distribution System that provided access to subsidized grain. Anticipating concerns from the business media and others about the costs of the food bill, Ahluwalia said: “I don’t think the government or anyone else should say that we can’t afford the food subsidy because of the fiscal deficit… that would be actually dishonest”. He added, however, that funding the Bill might call for a reduction of other expenditure.
Professor Sen also spoke about the politics of food and other subsidies. He pointed out that there are powerful lobbies for diesel and LPG subsidies, and even for exemptions of custom duties on gold imports, but not for children’s rights. Because of these imbalances of power and influence, there are also massive imbalances in India’s spending priorities. In his concluding remarks, Sen argued that better practice of democracy was the way to bring about constructive change, and invited everyone to contribute to it.
Dr. Reetika Khera (IIT, Delhi), who chaired the discussion on behalf of the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, spoke about the findings of recent field surveys of social programmes such as NREGA and the PDS, conducted by student volunteers. One of the main insights of these surveys, she said, was that these programmes can make a real difference to people’s lives – something that the media, and even academic research, often fail to report.