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Saturday, November 28, 2020

Beyond two-rupee rice

Congressmen like Mani Shankar Aiyar,Jairam Ramesh and Arjun Sengupta have bowled a googly in saying that the grand old party...

Written by Yoginder K. Alagh | April 10, 2009 11:14:50 pm

Congressmen like Mani Shankar Aiyar,Jairam Ramesh and Arjun Sengupta have bowled a googly in saying that the grand old party will abolish hunger if elected. Impossible,you say? Of course,it’s easy to dismiss any out-of-the-box idea as impractical. They said it for NREGA and must be,when in an honest mood,chewing their words. A country which is the second fastest-growing in the world,with billions in reserve and farmers that have proven ability to build up food reserves even with mild incentives has only stupidity or lack of courage as the reasons for letting its people sleep hungry.

Stupidity is not to be scoffed at. Conventional responses and lack of sincerity can destroy any idea. So let’s work out the land mines. The first: when we dream big we need to show the first step. We are fiscally stretched and so any more goodies can come only if the bill is paid for. If you are smart the bill may not be impossible but it is still heavy. Living off deficits is gone,as the old lady of Mint Street reminds us,and thank you Subba Rao for not playing to the gallery. So tell us where it’s coming from? Raising the VAT,the income tax rate or tariffs?

The next is the positives. Don’t link abolition of hunger only with grain. Rokkam Radhakrishna,one of the first men in the world to show how the poor responded to prices,built complete demand systems for rich and poor at the Sardar Patel Institute when I was there,and then for the Poverty Line definition when I went to the Planning Commission as a very young man. Not one to rest on his laurels,he showed that under certain conditions two rupees a kilo of rice could actually make the poor worse off — an exercise which didn’t particularly endear him to fellow

Telugu NTR. (Poor farmers are not only consumers but producers and farm labourers and suffer when agricultural prices go down.) The World Bank and ADB were to follow. The latter showed in The Asian Agricultural Survey that in every Asian region,if agriculture did not diversify,the time taken to end malnutrition would be longer. This is another land mine: the poor don’t only eat grain,they also consume oil,vegetables,meat — when they can afford it — and milk and fruit. Food is not air-conditioners; consumption is unequal but all consume it. Typically,say,if the average consumption of eggs is 30 and goes up to 40,it is likely that the poor household’s consumption will go up from 10 to 14 and the rich one’s from 50 to 65. So it’s important that a programme for food security is not at the expense of but is integrated with a programme that diversifies and spreads agricultural and rural growth. Anyway,don’t fob off the hungry only with grain! We Indians said it two decades ago but now the poverty labs are dishing that out again. 

If we are smart the additional cost of the programme will be much less than if it is a stand-alone programme. Food for Work is a good idea and we are already spending a lot on NREGA. Gopal’s NGO in AP follows the Gandhian principle of giving grain in advance for building assets in the villages. We already know that the adivasi and the poor girl stay put in school if there’s a free lunch. We also know that preventive health programmes will need us to resolve anaemia in pregnant and lactating mothers. Hygiene in food is important,since energy depends not only on intake but the ability to extract nutrition from food.

(This is not only true of modern NGOs but the great temples of the South and of gurdwaras everywhere. Virendra Heggade in Dharamsthala runs one of the most modern hygienic kitchens in India and on a festival day feeds a lakh of people.) Many of the big-ticket centrally-sponsored projects at the taluka and lower levels can easily integrate with a food programme. Many savings are possible if we genuinely build up a District Plan as we say we will.  

Elections are fun and games apart from letting us exercise our sovereignty. As a citizen,I hate to admit it but a political party — in this case the Congress — has come up with a good idea. Hold them responsible for it,don’t let them get away with forgetting it. It’s really possible to abolish hunger. At this time say “Do it”. The architecture will come later. I promise you that with all the power I have through not being a minister any more. 

The writer,a former Union minister,is chairman,Institute of Rural Management,Anand

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