June 12, 2016

Modi-led BJP Govt is Blind to Hunger & Malnutrition


IN a country where more than 20 crore people do not get an adequate daily diet and go to bed hungry, where half the women and over 60 percent of children are anemic, Modi government’s silence and inaction is nothing short of criminal. It is bizarre that Modi and his party, which have been portraying themselves as champions of “nationalism” demanding respect for the national flag and national anthem and such other symbols, should have this callous indifference towards the lives of crores of their country’s citizens. Have a look at their actions (or lack of them) and judge for yourself the depth of this pseudo-nationalism of Modi and the BJP.

The UPA government had passed the National Food Security Act (NFSA) in 2013 after intense pressure from people’s movements. This law was still short of the valid and justified demand for a universal public distribution system which would ensure two square meals for all of India’s residents at affordable prices. But still, it was a step forward. But after coming to power two years ago, the Modi government extended the date of implementation of the NFSA three times, the last one in March 2015 for six months. Why? One reason that was officially tom-tommed was that state governments had not identified those who were entitled for getting the foodgrains under the law. This was true to some extent. But what did the central government do to expedite the process? Nothing. A party and a prime minister that had not ever mentioned hunger as a big crisis facing India naturally allowed things to drift.

But the real reason behind repeatedly extending the NFSA implementation deadline was that it was saving the government a huge amount of money, commonly called the ‘food subsidy’. This fitted in well with the Modi government’s strategy of cutting down government expenditure, but it has directly caused continued suffering for crores of men, women and children. The extension served to reduce the food subsidy bill.

Currently, 33 states have implemented the public distribution system of the NFSA with Tamil Nadu, Nagaland and Kerala being the exceptions. Tamil Nadu and Kerala have their own pre-existing systems of channelising food grains to people. But because of the absence of any push or seriousness from the central government, and with most states being ruled by equally indifferent governments, the “implementation” of the NFSA is just a paper technicality. For instance, in Uttar Pradesh the distribution of new cards has still not been undertaken except for Bundelkhand, and the full roll-out is only expected only by June 2016.

But the story of Modi government’s willful sabotage of the food security law doesn’t end there. The food ministry tried internal subversion by introducing a slew of conditionalities for limiting the access of the poorest of poor to food grains under the Antyodaya scheme. These changes included the introduction of citizenship as a requirement for accessing entitlements under the NFSA, curtailing the expansion of the scheme by directing the states not to add any new family in case a family was dropped from the AAY and depending on the decadal census results rather than annual population projections to increase the allocations of food grains. All these were meant to not only limit the scheme but slowly strangulate it. For instance if only decadal census was to be used for population estimation then no new families could be added for ten years. How would people survive? Of these three changes, popular pressure could only ensure the rollback of the decision not to allow for new families to be added to the AAY list in case they were missed out during the counting.

Another attack on the scheme was that the provision for maternity entitlements of at least Rs 6000 for every pregnant and nursing mother was dropped. The ministry of women and child development (WCD) has not even framed the rules for this crucial provision. A pilot programme, called the Indira Gandhi Matritva Sahayog Yojana (IGMSY) is being implemented in 53 districts only. It continues to discriminate on the basis of the age of marriage and number of children. If a woman has more than two children, she will be refused food grains under the scheme.

Giving clear indication that the law’s implementation is only being done in name and the government is not keen on it, the institutional mechanisms have not been created down the line till the district level and beyond. For instance, district grievance redressal officers, whom a family can approach if they are left out, have been made out of minor officers with no powers.

But the full extent of Modi government’s hostility towards the people is revealed by its attitude towards other equally important components of the strategy to provide adequate nutrition to people, viz. schemes like the mid day meal scheme, anganwadis under the  ICDS, scheme for adolescent girls etc. All these schemes have suffered cuts in funding from the central government. This has hamstrung the delivery of nutritional supplements to the most vulnerable sections – children and adolescents.

Other programmes that would somewhat help crores of poor families, like the MGNREGS too have suffered poverty and making them all the more dependent on cheap food grains from ration shops – which is not available.

Even in the face of heightened distress due to the two successive droughts, the Modi Sarkar has refused to provide desperately needed help to starving families adding to the already dire circumstances they are facing. It needed the Supreme Court to severely admonish the government on its tardy and callously negligent treatment of drought relief and compensation efforts.
So, the Modi government’s all round squeeze on the people – all flowing from its sworn allegiance to the neo-liberal dogma of cutting government expenditure and allowing “market forces” to rule the roost – has further aggravated hunger and malnutrition in the country.