Addressing an auditorium brimming with at least 2,000 people at the Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi, Nobel laureate and economist Amartya Sen, at a panel discussion on ‘Hunger and Nutrition’, laid out his vision for why food security should get top priority in the country.
Outside the hallowed halls of IIT Delhi, the UPA’s National Food Security Bill is being debated publicly in states and the Standing Committee has just returned the draft Bill with its suggestions.
Sen said it was not just important to meet the needs of the malnourished Indian child “from the point of social justice but also to be able to generate long-term growth and development.”
He pointed out that “with one-third illiteracy, one-half without toilets, one-third with no electricity, 40 per cent of children being undernourished,” India needs to review if any increase in growth rate was at all sustainable
He spoke of the Asian growth model pioneered by Japan after the Meiji restoration in the 19th century and followed by South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore and finally China.
“This put the increase in capability of its people first in the form of the state providing health and education. This was understood nearly a century ago by Jamshedji Tata when Jamshedpur was established. But then the Asian growth model was forgotten.”
Amartya Sen said it was high time that India recommitted to developing human capabilities and discovering its broader connection with growth and social justice.
He was critical of “the idea of recommending China’s growth rate without the foggiest idea of what China does, is not a good idea.”
He said it was “an achievement” of Indians to be able to get the food security legislation on the table of Parliament, and that it must be pushed sensibly, choosing between where cash transfers would work and where they wouldn’t. 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.
Amartya 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.
Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission, Montek Singh Ahluwalia took a slightly different position when he spoke of inadequate data to ascertain of it was the schemes like ICDS or Anganwadi that would help to lower the extent of malnutrition among children.
He said that the latest figures available to the government on this were of the Third National Family Health Survey 2005-6 and there was need to update the statistics.
Ahluwalia said that food security should be made a priority and not be linked to the fiscal deficit. “Money can easily be allocated for food subsidy” but he said, “if the diesel subsidy, of about Rs 91,000 crore, was done away with”.
Shanta Sinha, chairperson of the National Commission for the Protection of Child Rights criticised the National Food Security Bill.
She took up the Parliamentary Standing Committee report on the Bill, which suggests replacing children’s entitlements with an additional allocation of 5 kg of food grains per month for pregnant women under the Public Distribution System.