Can any political party promise in its manifesto that, in the next 5 years, India will RANK among the 50 least-hungry countries in the Global Hunger Index?
It is time to celebrate the biggest spectacle of democracy on this planet. Roughly 650 million out of about 900 million eligible voters may exercise their right to choose their political leaders of the Indian Parliament. Like the Kumbh Mela, this festival of democracy will also last for about a month and a half. Notwithstanding several shortcomings of democracy, it still appears better than a dictatorship or centralised communist regimes. China may have done better in economic growth, but can Indians accept a one-child norm that China enforced during 1981-2016? Can there be open dissent in China’s media about its government policies as we have on Indian media channels? The obvious answer is ‘no’. We can accept a lower growth rate of 7% per annum, compared to China’s 9-10%, but will not lose our democracy or freedom, no matter how messy it gets.
But the governing political system must lead to policies that improve people’s welfare. The first and foremost duty of the state is to provide security to the lives and property of people. Next, it must eliminate poverty, hunger, and malnutrition, so that people’s welfare can improve. The entire gamut of policies should work towards that fundamental objective. Our record on this front is mixed, the glass is only half-full. This should be the central point of debate in this election.
Since more than two-thirds of our population is still in rural areas and their main occupation is agriculture, it is the agri-food policies that are crucial to the welfare of the masses. The manifestoes of our political parties should be appraised keeping this in mind.
Since the mid-1960s, when India was living from ‘ship to mouth’ for basic foodgrains, and when people used to queue up for two hours to get two litres of milk, even in Delhi, India has come a long way. Bold, timely and rational policies undertaken by governments of the day, be it Congress, BJP or coalition governments, brought about the Green Revolution (wheat and rice), White Revolution (milk), Red Revolution (meat, especially poultry), Blue Revolution (fisheries), Golden Revolution (fruits and vegetables), Gene Revolution (cotton) and so on. India is today the largest exporter of rice, buffalo meat, and second largest exporter of cotton and, overall, it is a net exporter of agri-produce although, in the last 5 years, agri-export surpluses have come down significantly.
Those who say that the government has done more work in the last 5 years than Congress did in 55 years only reveal their arrogance and ignorance of India’s history. Surely, some governments do better than the previous government in something or the other, but also do worse than others. Comparing the last five years with UPA-2, for example, NDA may have done better in, say, the construction of roads, but much worse in agriculture performance (agri-GDP growing at 2.9% per annum vis-à-vis 4.3% under UPA-2). Over a longer period, since 1991, the Indian economy has clocked an overall growth of 6.8%, and agri-GDP growth of about 3.15%. And it is likely to continue roughly at this pace unless bolder policy decisions are undertaken to spur this growth further.
While we feel proud of what India has achieved in the food and agriculture sectors, policymakers cannot be complacent. The task of eliminating hunger and malnutrition still remains as an unfinished agenda. The Global Poverty Clock puts India’s poverty at about 5.5% in 2018 (there is no number from the government of India on poverty after 2011), but the Global Hunger Index (GHI) puts India at the 103rd rank out of 119 countries covered in the study for 2018. Its hunger score index (31.1) stands at the highest amongst all BRICS countries, almost four times higher than that of China, and is categorised as ‘severe’ (see graphic). While we are busy in improving and gloating about India’s ranking (77th) in the World Bank’s ease of doing business index, we don’t want to talk about India’s hunger index ranking, which is the real indicator of people’s welfare. And that reflects inherent elitist biases in our politics and policymaking. Can any political party promise in its manifesto that in the next 5 years, or even 10, India’s ranking in the GHI will improve to at least the 50 least-hungry countries, if not 25? That itself will mean a major shift in policies.
It is in this context we look at what PM Narendra Modi and Congress president Rahul Gandhi have recently announced as direct income support (DIS) schemes to certain sections of society. While PM Modi announced `6,000 per year per farm family (owning up to 2 hectares of land) under PM-KISAN, costing roughly `75,000 crore in the budget, Rahul Gandhi has promised `72,000 per family per year support for the bottom 20% (5 crore) families through NYAY, which may cost `3.6 lakh crore. Both these policies, in a way, acknowledge that small and marginal farmers as well as the bottom 20% of the population have not benefited from the current set of policies as they should have.
So, this is now a desperate bid to help them or buy their votes. Both schemes are supposed to be add-ons to the existing subsidy schemes. Both schemes beg the questions of where the resources will come from and how the potential beneficiaries will be identified. There are no fool-proof lists of incomes of people or even land records of farmers. The issues of owner and tenant cultivators remain open. Solutions are not easy. It requires a lot of groundwork before such schemes can be effectively rolled out. But who has the time? It is time to promise the moon and later get off scot-free without fulfilling promises! It is here that the media has a national obligation to put political leaders in face-to-face debates, ask tough questions that matter to people’s welfare and to educate voters for better choices.