Food: A constitutional right?

A New York Times article yesterday reported a push by the governing Indian National Congress Party’s head to create a constitutional right to food and entitle every Indian family to a monthly 77-pound bag of grain, sugar and kerosene. Some believe making food a legal right would benefit the poor by allowing them to demand what they are rightfully entitled to. However, others within the party question whether the current delivery system is the right way forward and argue for food vouchers and coupons that would free the poor from government choices and allow them to buy what they want.

Although India does not face food shortages, it continues deal with a population reeling from hunger and poverty. According to the UK Department for International Development, 456 million Indians – 42 percent of the population – live in poverty and comprise one-third of the world’s poor. This figure is higher than the number of poor people living in all Sub-Saharan African countries combined. According to the New York Times article, research has shown that 70 percent of the food budget allocated to help the poor is wasted, stolen or absorbed by bureaucratic and transportation costs.

This mismanagement of resources affects those most in need of assistance. The New York Times reports Mr. Bhuria’s story:

Inside the drab district hospital, where dogs patter down the corridors, sniffing for food, Ratan Bhuria’s children are curled together in the malnutrition ward, hovering at the edge of starvation. His daughter, Nani, is 4 and weighs 20 pounds. His son, Jogdiya, is 2 and weighs only eight.

Landless and illiterate, drowned by debt, Mr. Bhuria and his ailing children have staggered into the hospital ward after falling through India’s social safety net. They should receive subsidized government food and cooking fuel. They do not. The older children should be enrolled in school and receiving a free daily lunch. They are not.

Inside the district hospital, Mr. Bhuria said he had applied three times for a food ration card, but the clerk had failed to produce one.

“Every time he would say, ‘We will do it, we will do it,’ ” Mr. Bhuria recalled. “But he never did.”

A farmer, Mr. Bhuria fell into deep debt six years ago after he mortgaged his land for a loan of 150,000 rupees, or about $3,200. Like most people in the district, Mr. Bhuria is a Bhil, a member of a minority group whose customs call for the family of the groom to pay a “bride price” before a wedding. Mr. Bhuria spent most of his loan on his brother’s wedding and was left landless, yet he and his wife kept having children. They now have six.

He and his wife migrated with their children to work as day laborers in the neighboring state of Gujarat. Working in Gujarat is common for farmers from Jhabua, but since none can use their ration booklets outside their home villages, they struggle to feed their families. When migrants returned to plant their fields in July, the malnutrition wards began to fill up at the district hospital.

This story is particularly relevant as DFID conducts a review of all bilateral aid and as arguments have been made to cut development aid to emerging economies (Revisit our post on: Should the UK Continue Giving Aid to Emerging Economies?). However, as India’s economy grows, the inequality gap has also been growing. Economic growth has disproportionately benefited the skilled and the wealthy, leaving the poorest behind. It is essential that DFID address these issues when assessing what aid to continue, as it is likely DFID will focus their support on just one of India’s poorest states.

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