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The costs of no food security

India is at the point where a low income democracy cannot afford to ignore the hungry

Written by Ashutosh Varshney
July 12, 2013 12:40:16 am

India is at the point where a low income democracy cannot afford to ignore the hungry

Is India’s food security ordinance supportable? The debate has been vigorous. It will help to separate the questions of process from those of principle.

Whether an ambitious scheme of this magnitude should have been brought in as an executive ordinance or as a new law after parliamentary debate,is basically a procedural question. It is not unimportant,but it does not tell us whether food security is inherently desirable in India. Once we have probed desirability,it would make sense to ask whether food security is affordable,even if desirable. There is also the question of whether the Indian state has the capacity to implement an ambitious welfare programme. Lumping all of these issues together — process,desirability,affordability,implementability — muddies analytical waters.

But one might begin with a different issue altogether. It has been vociferously argued that the government has promulgated the food security ordinance to enhance its electoral prospects. It is unclear why that is an unworthy impulse. Democratic politics cannot easily be envisioned without the idea of winning power. Power is embraced in democratic politics,not shunned. Even a dying government thinks of rebirth. One’s liking for or dislike of UPA 2 should be separated from one’s judgement of food security. Few who were opposed to the NDA objected to Vajpayee’s peace moves towards Pakistan or his road-building projects. The key analytical issue is whether good ideas are being married to the pursuit of power.

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Moreover,the debate over legislative versus executive paths to welfare programmes seems rather misdirected,especially if Parliament does not fully function. Even otherwise,an ordinance will cease to exist if it does not receive parliamentary approval. Food security without legislative endorsement will be stillborn.

The biggest issue is this: can a democracy avoid being a welfare state for long? No modern democracy relies entirely on the market forces to care for the needy; it allocates public resources for them. European democracies first developed this principle. But even in the US,the most market-driven economy in the world,the government has welfare programmes for the poor,the hungry,the old,the handicapped,the indigent.

Why can’t mass welfare be left entirely to the markets? Debated for decades in the field of political economy,this question has a well-known answer. A built-in paradox marks the functioning of markets. To stifle markets is to impair the long-term enhancement in human welfare,but to believe that markets alone can take care of all is to embrace an illusion. Markets are necessary for mass welfare,but not sufficient.


Further,there is also a built-in tension between markets and democracy. Markets don’t work on a one-person-one-vote principle,as democracies do. What one can get out of the marketplace depends on one’s endowments,skills,purchasing power and the forces of demand and supply. Markets reward individual initiative and skill,and may also lift many from the bottom rungs of society,but some people never get the opportunity to develop skills that markets demand: they are simply too poor,too handicapped,too sick. Or,skill formation takes too long,while life,if poor,to paraphrase Thomas Hobbes,remains nasty and brutish in the short to medium run. By creating jobs,markets may be able to help even unskilled people,but capitalism has always witnessed bursts of unemployment,open or disguised. The prevalence of unemployment punctures the idea that a rising tide will lift all boats. Markets lift many boats,but not all. Government programmes (or philanthropic interventions) are needed for those left behind,some for no fault of theirs.

If this is true of richer economies,what of societies like India? India’s contemporary economic structure has three pillars. India has the fifth largest concentration of listed dollar billionaires (after the US,Russia,China and Germany); the third largest middle class (after China and the US); the single largest concentration of the poor. The first two pillars are the principal drivers of economic growth. But the third pillar,not an economic driver,is a significant driver of politics. The bottom third of India does not get enough calories per day. (Extreme poverty is defined in caloric terms,not in terms of the quality of nourishment.) Being underfed,the bottom third is also routinely sick. The hungry and the sick can’t be productive workers,even if they want to. Markets can’t help them all that much. The poor,if fed or nourished better,also do better in the marketplace. They lift themselves and contribute to society. This is,in part,the argument of Amartya Sen,considered the intellectual father of India’s food security push. He is right.

Returning to voting,the drivers of Indian politics are,of course,larger than the bottom third. The first two categories,the supremely rich and the middle class,constitute a third of India. The extremely poor constitute another third,and a fourth of the population is not too far above the line. The last two groups,thus,add up to about 60 per cent of the electorate. These two groups are the targets of food security. Unlike the first four decades of Indian democracy,these groups now vote more than the middle class does. India’s democracy,as a result,is acquiring a plebeian thrust.


In the West,a welfare state emerged only after societies had become rich. While democracies might have been instituted in the late-18th or early-19th century,universal franchise came a century later. Unlike the West,independent India has had universal franchise right from the beginning,despite mass poverty. After six and a half decades,the pressures towards a welfare state are being felt all over the polity. Just as India’s low-income democracy is a historic novelty,the welfare state is also emerging at a low per capita income. No political party opposed NREGA; virtually none will oppose food security in principle. The SP’s opposition,if it survives,will stand in splendid solitude. The logic of the vote is undeniable.

The question of affordability remains. Is food security desirable but unaffordable? Will fiscal deficits only widen,bringing inflationary pressures and lower sovereign credit ratings,affecting investment? Depending on which economist one talks to,the answer differs. Some believe that food security will cost only 1 per cent of the GDP,others cite a figure of 3 per cent.

If it is the former,it will certainly not break the bank. Surely,some of the subsidies to the middle class and the rich can be cut. Moreover,if high growth returns,greater revenues for government programmes will be generated.

If the cost of food security is 3 per cent of the GDP,then a serious debate about affordability is necessary. That is too large a sum. Some attempt will have to be made to trim the scope of food security as well as cut the subsidies that go to the middle class and the rich. Finally,there are questions about implementability. India’s government programmes are riddled with corruption and leakage. Food security,it is argued,requires state capacity that does not exist.

Can corruption be the reason to oppose feeding the underfed and the sick? Our intellectual energies ought to be devoted to devising programme designs that minimise leakage and corruption. Moreover,if states like Chhattisgarh and Tamil Nadu already have roughly similar programmes,functioning reasonably well,we ought to figure out whether their programme designs are transferable to other states.


India is moving towards a rights-based conception of development,along with the promotion of market forces. It is not one or the other. This two-legged approach is not only desirable,but also more or less inevitable. The hunger and emaciation that one sees all around is embarrassing and must go down. It is also hurting economic growth.

Markets can ignore the hungry,but poor democracies cannot do so beyond a point. India’s democracy appears to be reaching that point. Food security is the price India’s rising capitalism might have to pay for functioning in a low-income democracy.


The writer is Sol Goldman Professor of International Studies and the Social Sciences at Brown University,where he also directs the India Initiative at the Watson Institute. He is a contributing editor for ‘The Indian Express’

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First published on: 12-07-2013 at 12:40:16 am
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