Food for Some Serious Thought: On the Food Security Bill

The Food Security Bill is on its way. It is making its headway through an ordinance instead of a rigorous debate in the houses of the parliament. The president has conceded his signature. And AICC has started claiming that such a beneficial bill for the poor has not been introduced in India ever before. And the oppositions, as usual, are presenting it as a political stratagem. According to the data released by the central government, the implementation of the bill requires an additional expenditure of 50 thousands to 1 lakh crores of rupees. The flickering economy of the nation will have to bear that burden. The million dollar question, in this context, is whether the poor common man will gain something out of it.

The bill is categorizing Indians into three broad groups. At first, there is the poorest of poor section which is conceded maximum advantages. A person belonging to this category will be able to consume a maximum quantity of 7 kg of rice for Rs. 3 per kg or wheat for Rs. 2 per Kg or Joar-Bajra for Re. 1 per kg in a month. A family of this economic category will be permitted to consume a maximum quantity of 35 kg of the abovementioned food grains at the same rates. Following this is another category, membership to which enables a person to consume a maximum quantity of 3 kg food grains. They will consume these food grains by paying a half of the price that the government will be paying to the producers. Following this group is the group of ‘well-off’ Indians who, the government thinks, can take care of itself.

The Food security bill claims to cover 75% of the rural population and 50% of the urban population in India. Among them, 46% of the rural population and 28% of the urban population belong to the first category that is profiting most of the advantages. Apart from this, the bill sanctions special provisions for the pregnant and breast-feeding mothers, children, homeless and poorest of poor.

This seems to be a pretty fine arrangement on the surface level. But there are some points raised by economists and activist groups which merit a serious attention.

Is India capable of producing such a huge quantity of food grains? And what will a poor family do with the excess money it will get by consuming subsidized food?

In a survey recently conducted by NSSO, the surveyors divided the urban and rural consumers into ten broader groups. The lowest income group was marked with number 1 and the highest income group with number 10. Nearly 10% of Indian population is included in a single group. The upward you go from 1 to 10, per capita consumption gradually increases. For example, per capita food consumption in rural areas among the lowest group is in about ten and half kg; for the highest income group, it is slightly above 12 kg. For the lowest income group in the urban areas, per capita food consumption increases with a hike in income but one cannot formulate such an equation for the higher income groups. The most important data released by this survey is the significantly decreasing amount of food consumption with increasing amount of income in case of over 60% of overall population. Fast moving consumer goods like soaps, combs or cellular phones are in higher demand than food grains in comparatively well-off households in the rural areas. And well-off families in the urban areas are consuming costlier protein intakes and vegetables instead of elementary food grains.

One thing is certainly clear. Excess money gives way to better food consumption in the rural regions. So with the excess money a rural family gets hold of by consuming subsidized food grains, it will consume more food grains from the open market. So the proper implementation of the Food Security Bill will ensure a hike in the demand for food grains in the rural markets. The problem lies in the fact that production cannot be increased overnight to satisfy that demand. At present, forex reserve of Indian economy is not sufficient enough to balance this inequality of supply and demand. So inflation becomes the only available tool to manage the situation.

This price-rise will affect the poorest families in worst possible ways. After the full implementation of the Food Security Bill, the lowest income groups in rural areas will consume a share of their consumption from the open market. The NSSO survey reveals that per capita food consumption among the lowest income group is around 11 kg and the provisions in the Food Security bill concede only 7 kg of this. So both the income groups outside the purview of subsidy and the lower income groups within it will have to consume overpriced food grains from the open market. In addition to that, the lower income groups will consume extra food grains with the excess money in hand. And the higher income groups outside the purview of subsidy, with sufficient income capabilities, will not lower their demand for food grains. In the midst of it, prices of necessary food grains will get skyrocketed.

So the question is ‘who is going to get benefitted from the huge amount of subsidy provided in the Food Security Bill?’ A certain portion will surely flow into the sectors other than agriculture but the lion’s share will be deposited in the hands of a few big businessmen and stockers in the agricultural sector.

Everybody with a minimum knowledge about Indian public distribution system is aware that it needs radical reforms. The Food Security bill pledges to bring a sea-change in PDS’s workings but no one knows how long it will take. So implementing the bill before PDS reforms paves the way for corruption and futility. A large number of poor people in India don’t hold a ration card owing to the lack of proper PDS infrastructure. If inflation hits the open market, they will be affected most.

Summarily, there are two points to make. First, subsidizing food grains without a massive increase in production is not a solution. Second, without introducing radical reforms in public distribution system, food security cannot be provided for such a large number of people.

I hope that our policy-makers will give some thought to it.


Student Politics in India: A Perspective

A few months back, after the brutal rape and murder of the young lady in New Delhi, young people across communities took to the streets. Their rage was directed at the political class. Most of the people gathered in New Delhi to protest against the largely passive reaction of the political personalities and lengthy judicial proceedings of India belonged to the student community. Their reactions to the brutality as aired through media reveal a strange interplay between the student community and the political class at large. Besides this, some recent phenomena circling around colleges’ union-body elections in West Bengal bring to surface a debate on the nature of students’ involvement to politics. In this context, this article tries to look back to the celebrated tradition of students’ association with politics and its significance in India.

Philip Altbach, an US based political scientist, in his 1968 book describes student movements as either normative or value oriented, and according to him, all the political actions by students either focus on an etudialist or a societal issue. The normative course of a movement revolves around a specific and micro issue and the value orientation centres on broader ideological motives like breaking down class barriers and so.

In India, organized student movement developed as an integral part of the anti-colonial struggle. In 1928, during the visit of the Simon Commission, Indian National Congress leaders organized students to demand the recommendation for political independence. Later on, student movement in India started operating through separate bodies led and organized by students. It achieved a different dimension with the growing political strength of the leftist movement in pre-independence India. The All India Student Federation (AISF) was formed in 1936 under the guidance of CPI. This organization acquires a glorious part of the organized student movement in Indian history. It had a radical and loosely national agenda initially; the primary demand was the freedom India from the colonial yoke. AISF had very active cultural fronts which worked in the grassroots to reach the rural population. Later on, it essayed a pivotal role in the formation of IPTA. The first conference of AISF was held in Lucknow and adopted 25 resolutions and a 23-points charter of demands. A students’ organ called The Students’ Tribune was planned to be initiated. Reduction of fees, democratization and reformation of the colonial education system, adapting to a student-friendly language policy and many other issues involving a number of social, economic and cultural dimensions were among the resolutions and the charter.

The more or less unified structure of the Indian student movement suffered a considerable blow with the formation of All-India Muslim Student Federation (AIMSF) in 1937. AIMSF demanded a separate Muslim state and contributed immensely to the formation of Pakistan in 1947.

The Second World War is a decisive as well as divisive turnaround in Indian student movements’ history. Internal conflict of opinion within AISF led to a rift which resulted in the formation of All India Student Congress (AISC) in early 1940s. The rift surfaced because of a debate on the issue of USSR’s participation in the war. AISC went on to become one of the preeminent student organizations in pre-independence India.

Indian independence and partition brought in more fractionalization within the student movement. Many nationalist student leaders were disenchanted with Indian National Congress for its alleged compromises for independence. The Socialist Congress Party and its youth organizations suffered heavy blow for this kind of disillusionment. The communists were dissatisfied with the declaration of partition and following independence. Leftist leaders, across the nation, took to the streets with slogans like Yeh Aazaadi Jhoota hai (This Is a False Independence). The Communist Party, in the years immediately subsequent to the independence, went into underground. As a result, the leftist student movement was put to disarray in the late 40s and early 50s.

The newly independent nation and its government adopted an education policy that stresses on the massive expansion of the education sector. Number of university graduates rapidly increased in the years following independence. So did the number of unemployed young men and women. Discrimination on the basis of political ideology gained currency in the domain of civil service and other public sector recruitment. A generation of students became disillusioned with the dream of an independent and secured nation. The seeds of the extremist and ultra-leftist student movements were being sown in during the course of the late 50s and 60s.

The political landscape of international politics was bipolar. With the 1961 Cuban Missile Crisis, cold war between the USA and the USSR reached a zenith. AISF used to receive financial aids from the USSR by upholding its traditional support for the cause of a supposed communist world revolution. AISC got dissolved in 1948. In this context, an effort was initiated to build a non-political student body by the students opposed to AISF. Formed in 1950, National Union of Students (NUS) was a precursor to this idea. But owing to internal disputes, NSU stopped operating in 1958. Then in the early 1960s, anti-communist and anti-AISF students formed an organization called National Council of University Students of India (NCUSI). The international forces opposed to the USSR wanted to use this organization to balance the Soviet influence in Indian student politics.

Internal conflicts within both AISF and NCUSI weakened the student movement to a great extent and student movement, for the time being, lost its macro goal and got involved with only campus related micro issues. In 1970, as a result of the official split in CPI half a decade back over the question of loyalty to the Chinese and Soviet Communist parties, Student Federation of India (SFI) was formed out of AISF. It is the largest student organization in India today.  With its slogan of independence, democracy and socialism, SFI is a self-proclaimed crusader against imperialism and oppression of the global capital.

Then came the 70s. With the annihilation of feudal powers and nationalization of the banking sector across the nation, peasants and labourers were filled in with new optimism. On the other hand, growing unemployment, inflation and social disparity gave birth to a kind of agitation in the minds of urban educated middle class. University students, mostly in states with a considerable communist presence, dreamt of changing the systems of bourgeoisie liberal democracy. In interior rural pockets like Naxalbari in north Bengal, fresh university graduates under the leadership of seasoned extremist politicians built political base and tried to organize a large scale mass movement with the help of peasants and labourers. The state apparatus came down heavily upon this extremist politics and within a decade, the movement started being remembered and studied only as a failed, misguided and romanticized attempt by a frustrated and educated student community.

In April 1977, Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI) was formed in Aligarh, Uttar Pradesh. Its declared agenda was to free Indian students from the influence of western materialistic culture and establish a Muslim code of conduct. Allegations of spreading terrorist ideology have repeatedly been made against SIMI in the subsequent years. The Supreme Court marked it as a secessionist movement in 2007 and prior to that, the government of India banned the organization in 2001. A CBI report recently claims that SIMI operates in India in the name of Indian Mujahedeen which is a declared terrorist organization.

Parallel to that Islamist extremism, there is a moderate extremist Hindu ideology of student politics propagated by Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), an affiliate to BJP and RSS. It was formed right after the independence in 1948. It upholds the traditional Indian Vedic values and avowedly communal in some respects. In the campuses where ABVP holds sway, one finds a different kind of cultural practice. Bowing down to the seniors and keeping a safe distance from the opposite gender is two of the dictates of ABVP. It is organizationally strong in JNU, Banaras Hindu University and many universities of north and south India.

Student movements in the north-eastern states of India merit a different article on its own. Ethnic politics and distance from the rest of India have made the north-eastern states a sensitive battleground of student movements. I shall possibly be back with an article on the student movement in the north-east in near future.

Once upon a time, in the tapovanas of ancient India, students used to chant Vedic mantras and when someone like Satyakama entered the forest in pursuit of knowledge, the caste-ridden social hierarchy used to laugh at them. We have left it behind long ago and we don’t need another Ekalavya who would not be able to join in because of his social standing. The sooner Indian student movements come to terms with this realization, better would it be for the nation.

Barring a Few

The ban imposed by the state government on bar dancing in the night clubs of Maharashtra has been withheld by the Supreme Court. According to the state administration, bar dancing is primarily responsible for the rising level of anti-social activities, prostitution and women trafficking in the state of Maharashtra; and it is detrimental to the progress of social morality as a whole. All the political parties in the state- from the ruling coalition of NCP and the Congress to the opposition BJP and Shiv Sena– unanimously supported this view. The apex court, however, has freed our politicians from the responsibility of upholding the social morality. It has reminded that apart from putting a stop to moral decaying of a society, there are lots of things to do for a government.

The ruling by the apex court can provide us with rewarding insights about the equations of class-relations in the 21st century India. In Maharashtra, singing and dancing to Bollywood and other tunes are not prohibited in the corridors of starred and high-end pubs and restaurants. The Supreme Court has rightly put forth its argument that the standard of social morality should not be compromised in favour of a particular socio-economic class. If bar dancing is harmful for the social health, it should be banned irrespective of the place it is being performed in. Targeting the gatherings of the comparatively lagged behind socio-economic and socio-cultural classes points to the middle-class colonized perceptions of the political class in India today.

Their response to the apex court ruling is even more alarming. The state government has decided on appealing to a higher bench of the Supreme Court. The political parties of the state are thinking of framing a stricter legislation in this regard. High-end pubs and starred bars and restaurants are allowed a free run even after this spate of controversy.

Let us look at the statistics. After the crackdown came upon bar-dancing in 2005, nearly 75 thousands professional dancers became jobless overnight. A number of surveys by the NGOs and women groups reveal that most of these professional bar-dancers were forced to join prostitution and other related professions. Number of suicides, too, is not ignorable. Nearly 2500 nightclubs and bars were closed down and the employees of these centres of ‘morally decaying’ entertainment were forced to be associated with the underworld. Engineering a design to denigrate so many people in the name of uplifting social morality is the articulated handiwork of the politicians of Maharashtra.

So overpowering is this urge of social reformation that the so-called secular Nationalist Congress Party of Sharad Powar and the Hindu nationalist Shiv Sena have broken a common ground in this issue. The political culture of the state is otherwise very divisive and on the issues of social justice and development, these political parties have conflicting perspectives. Back in time, the Marathi society has been a witness to a number of progressive social revolutions; it has now, not unlike the rest of India, become a battleground to gain political brownie points.

In the name of social morality, looting the freedom of the individual and right to a job and affordable entertainment is not at par with democratic multiplicity. The Supreme Court judgement is an oasis in the political arid land of India. But one can press the panic button as the political and the civil society of this land of diverse cultures are not vocal about the hollowness of the political class in this issue.

A Taste of History

It is the last job on earth that you would agree to join in. Tasting food to check whether it is poisoned was the duty of Margot Woelk for a period of two and half years; that too for one of the most dreaded and hated autocratic leaders the world has ever seen- Adolf Hitler. The 96 year old German widow has recently revealed in an interview her designation during the closing years of the Second World War. The news, she claims, was not known even to her deceased husband.

She was one of the 15 ladies entrusted with the same responsibility. Hitler got paranoid about being poisoned by the Anglo-American and the Russian intelligence in the final years of his life. A circle of close aides was formed in order to protect the Fuehrer from possible life-threats. Along with his close aides, the Fuehrer used to live in the Second World War’s first Eastern-front Military headquarters Wolf’s Lair. Woelk, as a young woman in her 20s, was a resident of the Wolf’s Lair and is the only surviving member of the group of close aides to Hitler. All of her colleagues got killed by the Russian forces after the German headquarters fell in the month of January, 1945.

The closing years of the Second World War was a troubled time for most of the Germans because food-shortage reached an all-time high during that period. Woelk was fortunate to have her square meals regularly and the diet, according to her, was delicious. Best vegetables, best spices, bell peppers and asparagus were gathered for the Fuehrer who had been a vegetarian. But eating those things regularly was not as happy an experience for the 15 member girls-squad as you are thinking. Rumours of poisoning had widely been gaining currency around this time and the Fuehrer’s tasters feared every passing day that the meal they were having was going to be the last of their life.

A History that Was Hushed

Margot Woelk was born in December 1917 in Wilmersdorf, a sub-urban locality of Berlin. In the winter of 1941, she had to leave her parents’ apartment in order to escape from continuous allied bombing. Her husband had been serving in the German army for years then. She moved, with a few of her relatives, to Rustenburg, a city 700 kilometres east to Berlin.  She and her colleagues were handpicked by the local mayor and their job was to taste the Fuehrer’s food daily from 11 o’clock to 12 o’clock in the morning.

After the 1944 bombing at the Wolf’s Lair, situation got heated up and Woelk was instructed by the Nazi authorities to leave her relative’s home and take shelter in an abandoned school compound. After a few days, she left Rustenburg and reached Berlin by train. And then went into hiding.

All of her 14 colleagues didn’t leave Rustenburg and subsequently got killed by the Red Army.

Margot Woelk returned to Berlin to discover a dilapidated city. For the month of April, round the clock air-attacks by the allied forces continued. Finally, on the 2nd of May, Berlin fell after the news of Hitler’s suicide was confirmed. Woelk, not unlike most of the common Berliners, was caught by the Red Army and in one of her interviews, she narrates her unspeakable experience of getting raped 14 times for a period of a couple of weeks.

She got back to Karl, her husband in 1946. Brutality of the Russian army made it impossible for her to give birth to children. Karl and Margot lived a happy married life until Karl passed away in 1980.

In Restless Dreams I Walk Alone

Recently, a German journalist interviewed Woelk and her involvement with the Nazis was revealed. Since then, she has become a celebrity who regularly receives calls from school principals and museum authorities to share the slice of history that is unknown and one of its kinds.

The world got stormed a few years back when we came to know of Gunter Grass’s association with the Nazi army. The same fear of getting cornered kept Grass to reveal a part of his life. I feel happy that finally, Woelk could share a chapter of her life that is replete with tragic memories and unbearable brutalities. She will not have to bear the heavy burden of a silence anymore for the rest of her life.

The Lotus is Sinking and the Hand Gets Dirtier

Lying is an established & proven phenomenon in Indian politics. It is a practised trend and part of Indian socio-political history. People of India and media alike, these days, don’t pay too much attention to the ever-widening gap between our politicians’ words and actions. For immediate gains, politicians iterate so many things that they themselves do not believe in and try to implement. Lying by politicians, more often than not, is not dangerous for overall affairs of the nation but at times, it informs us of directions to which the nation in general and the political class in particular are heading for.

A few days back, BJP leader from Utter Pradesh and former home minister of Gujarat Amit Shah, who is a close aide to BJP’s 2014 election’s campaign committee chief Narendra Modi, said that they would surely build Rammandir in near future. One can question what he means by the word they. Setting it aside, we can proceed to the rest of his statement. Mr. Shah said that Hindutva would be the key issue in the electoral agenda of BJP for the 2014 general election and with Hindutva at the forefront, they would surely come off with flying colours. A few days after Mr. Shah issued this statement, BJP president Rajnath Singh, in one of his rallies, said that Rammandir is not at all an electoral or a political issue; it is rather a national issue. And Hindutva is not a political agenda of BJP. Two conflicting statements by two leaders of the leading opposition are reflective of their respective political aspirations.

Sushma Swaraj, another leader of the first order in BJP, took this double standard to the point of self-deception. In the context of the serial blasts in Bodhgaya recently, Mrs. Swaraj said that they would not allow India to be another Bamiyan. (Here again pops up the bizarre question ‘what really does the word they mean?’). I don’t understand whether she is suffering from amnesia which makes her forget that it was BJP that essayed a pivotal role in the destruction of Babri Masjid back in 1992.

So many conflicting aspirations are gaining currency inside BJP that their promise to initiate a well-orchestrated regime seems to be a tall claim. Even as an opposition, BJP’s praxis in the corridors of both houses of parliament doesn’t make Indian people optimistic.

Parallel to that, the way the second regime of UPA is making its progress is not too presentable either. Rahul Gandhi appears to be their leader at the forefront and probable prime ministerial candidate but so far, he has failed Congress and its allies in every responsibility he has been entrusted with. From the assembly election in Utter Pradesh to the formation of Youth Congress & NSUI as organizations of national importance, Rahul Gandhi is nothing but a tragic warrior prince. UPA 2 is struck between policy paralysis and economic downturn; wooing its regional allies over NCTC or position regarding Sri Lanka has been getting difficult with the exit of Pranab Mukherjee from electoral politics. But the biggest threat for UPA and the nation as a whole has been the spectre of corruption. Never before in India, was such a series of scams involving political leaders within such a short period of time exposed.

Picture is not too bright for India. Lack of a decisive leadership in both sides of power, rise of China as supreme power in the Asia-pacific, ever-growing American effort to exert control over the region, cross-border and domestic threats of terrorism, rising level of public anger against the political class, corruption and unhealthy competition for power- there is an endless list of worries for India as a nation.

At this critical time, our political leaders must remember that people forget but history does not.