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Fwd: [karmayog] Why a Right to Food, but no Right to Drinking Water?

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  • Thiagarajan Arunachalam
    From: karmayog - tanya http://www.livemint.com/Opinion/ND5d3lMP9yCm635kvINq8I/Right-to-food-or-drinking-water.html Right to food or
    Message 1 of 1 , Jun 14, 2013
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      From: karmayog - tanya <info@...>


      Right to food or drinking water?

      The fundamental pathology of Indian policy is the overwhelming preference
      for subsidies over public goods

      Niranjan Rajadhyaksha

      First Published: Fri, Jun 14 2013. 12 54 AM IST

      One useful way to understand a fundamental flaw in policymaking in India
      since 2004 is to ask a rhetorical question: why is the ruling United
      Progressive Alliance aggressively pushing for a law guaranteeing the right
      to food rather than one for the right to clean drinking water?

      Take a look at the numbers. A February report by the National Sample Survey
      Organisation (NSSO) shows that the proportion of households not getting two
      square meals a day dropped to about 1% in rural India and 0.4% in urban
      India in 2009-10. An earlier survey in 2004 showed that around 2% of Indian
      households experienced hunger at some point in the preceding 12 months.

      The latest data suggests that around 10 million Indians do not get enough to
      eat, which is undoubtedly a national shame. Now consider another number:
      some 100 million Indians do not have access to clean drinking water,
      according to data from the World Bank. So Indians who lack clean drinking
      water far outnumber those who cannot afford food.

      And it is the failure to provide clean drinking water that is a bigger cause
      of the malnutrition problem rather than a lack of food, as economist Arvind
      Virmani pointed out in a recent article in The Times of India: "Analysis of
      the state-wise 2004-05 National Sample Survey and the 2005-06 National
      Family Health Survey data led to the conclusion that the most important
      cause of malnutrition in India was the abysmal state of public health in
      terms of sanitation, pure drinking water and public knowledge about the
      importance of cleanliness.and nutrition".

      These are the facts. One, India has far more malnourished people than hungry
      people, which tells us that the malnutrition crisis is due to factors beyond
      access to food. Two, sanitation and clean drinking water are key
      contributors to the crisis. Three, international data shows that much of the
      difference between malnutrition in India and malnutrition in other countries
      with similar income levels is explained by public health variables.

      So let us return to the question asked at the beginning of this article: why
      does the ruling alliance prefer to push a right to food law rather than one
      that guarantees a right to clean drinking water?

      My answer is as follows: the government will have to increase its subsidy
      bill to provide cheap food for everyone but it will actually have to build
      good drinking water systems across the country if it has to make access to
      clean water a legal right. The first involves subsidizing while the second
      involves building. The first requires unfunded budgetary provisions while
      the second requires technical and managerial competence down to the smallest
      hamlet. The first is second nature to our political class while the second
      will require a radical shift in governance.

      The eagerness to spend more to provide a larger food subsidy rather than use
      the money to build modern sanitation systems captures the quintessence of
      the policy skew in India, towards subsidies and away from capital spending.
      The two Manmohan Singh governments have cumulatively spent close to Rs.11
      trillion for subsidies since 2004 (and I have not adjusted these numbers for
      inflation). Some of these subsidies must undoubtedly have reached the
      poorest Indians, but it is safe to say that much of it was either pilfered
      or was captured by powerful interests. Look at the fuel subsidies that have
      benefited everyone from middle class housewives to owners of sport utility
      vehicles (SUVs).

      Or consider another example: the Indian government has spent close to Rs.2
      trillion on providing jobs under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural
      Employment Guarantee Act. Surely it is time to ask whether the money would
      have been better spent on rural roads or minor irrigation projects or
      village schools. What would have made a more lasting impact on rural
      poverty? To ask the question is to be instantly branded as an enemy of the

      The fundamental pathology of Indian policy is the overwhelming preference
      for subsidies over public goods. The political support for the right to food
      law is a classic illustration of this pathology, even when the data suggests
      that the roots of the malnutrition problem lie elsewhere.

      To be sure, the men and women in the right to food campaign have earnestly
      battled to put the malnutrition crisis at the centre of national discourse.
      They are close to achieving what they set out to do many years ago, and all
      of them mean well. But it is well known that the road to hell is paved with
      good intentions, as India has seen over the decades. We have seen how
      protection to domestic industry led to an inefficient economy, rent control
      laws destroyed the housing stock in our cities, laws meant to protect
      tribals by preventing them for selling forest produce to outsiders benefited
      local tribal elite.the list is a long one.

      The right to food law has been sold as a grand gesture in humanitarianism,
      in a country that generally prefers emotional tugs to factual thinking. It
      is actually a clever ploy to win votes in 2014, even if its costs leave
      behind fiscal wreckage.

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