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Food Or Nutrition?


I

 

Do you remember that day in 1836 when a desperately hungry twelve year old English orphan “asked for more”?

 

Yes, Oliver Twist I mean.

 

Neither the honourable Board of the Workhouse nor indeed the British Crown had ever before encountered a more perfidious enormity than an orphan asking, actually asking, for more “food” than the three stipulated bowls of watery thin gruel.

 

Like a bolt of rebellious lightning the word spread. The danger was atonce recognized to be of gargantuan proportions, leading to the sagacious decision to palm off the orphan to work for an undertaker. From whose likely clutches only Providence intervened to save the famished child.

 

That recalcitrant history seems now to be repeating itself in India, an erstwhile colony who was to learn great and good lessons from the canny practices of the colonizer, chiefly of how to keep the rabble just this side both of life and death. For dying, they bring disrepute to the realm, and living a human existence they threaten its continuance. But being barely alive, they cast that vote, come hustings, and return to beg for more.

 

As the Indian government contemplates a Right-to-Food Act, whereby some rice and/or wheat might be given to those below the “poverty line” (which, in diverse computations by the “experts” ranges from some 27% of Indians to some 77%) at nominal rates, the hungry and those that speak for them are actually asking to be given nutrition as well!

 

Just how ungrateful can you be!

 

II

 

Of the 88 countries on the Global Hunger Index, the mighty Republic of India ranks at 66, with a child malnutrition record worse than that of sub-saharan Africa.

 

On the Human Development Index, at 134 (from some 188), below Laos and Bhutan. And in terms of the absolute numbers of the world’s poor, absolutely at the top!

 

But there is the other India, that of the billionaires (49 dollar ones according to Forbes) and the many millionaires on way to becoming billionaires as well.

 

So who does the state work for? 

 

Where the latter India looms over the G 20 and suchlike with the promise and the delicious threat of greatness, the former, refusing to see the point, open their ever-hungry mouths and bid fare to swallow what greatness is destined to the Republic.

 

Were you a “patriotic” Indian, what would you do or say? Precisely what the state is saying: for god’s sake, do not hold the nation back from its evolving superpowerdom.

 

When History’s chips are counted, pray who counts the destitute?

 

Now, according again to the “experts” it would take India between some 50,000 and 80,000 crore rupees to make nutrition available to its destitute, as opposed merely to rice and wheat (and that if the scheme were to be universalized rather than limited to some arbitrary numbers of the designated poor). As the inimitable Sainath has just shown, this would amount to about a sixth of the tax write-offs effected in favour of the rich in this year’s budget alone!

 

Or just about equal to the moneys purported to be spent in preparing for the Commonwealth games!

 

The point, however, is this: how conscionable would it be to make such a nutritious food subsidy available to poor Indians when the same money might be used more glamorously to adorn some further high-end “developmental” schemes matching the best in the “first world” to which the Republic is poised to belong, atleast some ten or fifteen percent of it?

 

Do not the “best” economists both at home and in the wide world tell us that the destitute must be taught to stand on their own feet, and aspire, in the celebrated American fashion to outdo the fortunate in time?

 

For, remember, the rich are the fortunate; they are not the beneficiaries of state policies. Everybody knows how the state infact bleeds, especially at election times, for the less fortunate. But then, even the mightiest of states has been known to be helpless in the teeth of fortune. The lady who rolls that wheel is after all a lady, and fickle at the best of times.

 

III

 

The wretched thing, though, is that this necessary evil that legitimates the state, the thing called democracy, will not let the harbingers of greatness go entirely their billionaire way. 

 

Indeed, the demos argues now for much more than nutrition as well; they actually seek clean drinking water, guaranteed and good health care, assured entry into schools, and a right to inhabit the millions of houses they build with their labour. Even the right to gainful employment.

 

And worse still, there are those now, throughout the realm, who seem foolishly willing to die for what they call their “rights” as enshrined in that troublesome book called the Constitution.

 

Some go so far as to say that the book itself requires to be changed, and a new one brought in, so that the causes of hunger and destitution, and of the humongous cleavages between the haves and the have-notes are addressed in earnest. For a start, they insist that the many land-ceiling Acts enacted by parliament and the legislatures decades ago be actually implemented on the ground. Something that would lead to the horrendous consequence of “leveling” social lives in the hinterland, and robbing the ordained owners of millions of acres of their birth-right to lord it over the landless millions.

 

That would also lead to a spread of contentment among the demos, rendering India’s police and para-military forces jobless in the main, and the arms dealers devoid of lucrative trade. Perish the prospect, we say. Is India to be a Republic in deed as well? Who would have thought of it!

 

IV

 

Six decades of democracy has brought this nation to a point where all Indians think they are equal citizens of the realm, and thus have a right to all that the realm has to offer, especially as the millionaires and the billionaires seem to work far less than the sancullotes for a living. They harbour the dangerous illusion that they are meant to be made equal not just politically but economically and socially as well. So much for the flights of reason.

 

The state is told that the fatcat corporates who in point of fact run it cannot be allowed to go and rape forests and water resources just any which way they see profit. And for some wonky reason, there are those among the judges of the land who seem to think so too, although a braveheart or two just yet. But if the contagion spreads, there may be more.

 

Imagine then the prospect for the nation if all the Olivers of the land were to be actually accorded not just food enough to survive another day, but nutrition to become hearty and healthy. 

 

A day might come when not all the police and para-military forces, not even the celebrated army, could hold those violent and demented hordes of the demos in check. Indeed, it is thus proved that the greatest harm to the Republic could come from that one source, namely a happy and healthy citizenry.

 

The wisdom of the ages thus dictates that the poor be fed—if only to buy some credit with the gods—but just this side of good health. 

 

Any charity that overreaches itself cannot but damage its own purposes.

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