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 Principles of Politics
 
India’s own politics of denial
The Indian Express, India Friday, January 21, 2011

Pratap Bhanu Mehta
It is a scandal that after two decades of high growth, India still does not make adequate nutrition available to large sections of the population. The debate is largely a futile exercise. Strangely, we are not even shocked by the failure in ensuring food security. The government has had its head in the sand over inflation too for a long time. The planning commission chairman’s reported claim that inflation has to do with rising wages was, in the context, a bit like blaming the victim. If he had blamed the Commonwealth Games for inflation, it would have been more plausible, writes Pratap Bhanu Mehta in The Indian Express.


The debate over food security is becoming an exercise in callow dissimulation, where we devote our energies to ensure that food security remains a mirage. The core objective should be simple. It is a scandal that after two decades of high growth, India still does not make adequate nutrition available to large sections of the population. There is simply no financial, technological or production related reason why this should be so. UPA-II decides to make food security a priority. But just see how the issues play out. We have become so self-referential, and so clever by half that we often don’t even notice the ironic enormity of what we are saying. Speaking the truth has become a way of avoiding reality.

So let us cut through the chase. When the stories about rotting foodgrains broke, and the question arose “Why foodgrains should not be distributed?”, the response went something like this. The minister of agriculture said this was impossible. The chief economic advisor, with his characteristic clarity, claimed something to the effect that we simply did not have the mechanisms to release and distribute food. Perhaps there was an element of analytical honesty in this claim. But the shock is that we were not shocked by it. What was the government in effect saying? That after decades of procurement, food subsidies of Rs 50,000 crore a year, we simply had no mechanism to distribute grains we procured. This should be the mother of all scandals. But we patted ourselves on the back for our capacity for sophisticated economic thinking.

...

The sophisticated response had three parts. The first was the Planning Commission (PC). Under some argument about feasibility it shoots down the idea that universalisation of food security is possible. This should have been a scandal for several reasons. First, as the JNU economist, Himanshu, has pointed out in a series of papers, the PC’s numbers on both grain requirement and cost are at the very least debatable. Second, the PC, if it genuinely has any role, should have at least had the courtesy of proposing an alternative scheme that met the core objectives. Instead, it acted as if its raison d’etre was not alleviating poverty, but saying no.

...

Now enters the even more sophisticated argument. Let us do cash transfers. Cash transfers are an appealing idea. In India, cash transfers are unfortunately seen as a substitute for governance. But cash transfers will require even more sophisticated governance. There will be a market response only if supply bottlenecks can be removed. UID is more compatible with universalisation than with targeting, but even that is probably a decade away. And, as one of the early proponents of cash transfers in India, Partha Mukhopadhya, pointed out, you still have the foodgrain problem. Government will still be procuring grain. So you will still have the

...

Where do we go next? The predictable argument: “The states are the problem!” Of course some states are. But this claim, that the prime minister repeats endlessly, embodies both avoidance and arrogance on part of the Central government. In the history of ideas relating to social policy, the states innovate more than the Centre. Centrally sponsored schemes are a constitutional usurpation legitimised by the self-referential knowledge elites of Delhi. And the one thing the

...

The government has had its head in the sand over inflation for a long time. The PC chairman’s reported claim that inflation has to do with rising wages was, in the context, a bit like blaming the victim. If he had blamed the Commonwealth Games for inflation, it would have been more plausible. If you want another example of obfuscation, see the debate linking NREGA to inflation. The same people who make the link also believe that NREGA is not working. So it is both not effective and causes inflation? How does this circle square?

A lot of these arguments are like lawyerly interventions to produce a fog of doubt. Now the debate is whether NREGA wages should be index-linked. These wages should be lower than the minimum wage. But there is no justification for not making NREGA wage rises index-linked. Oh! We forget. Index-linked wage rises are only for government employees, who keep telling us that rising wages cause inflation. When we ask them to produce a credible roadmap for food security, all they can come up with is: Government does not work!

This article was published in the The Indian Express on Friday, January 21, 2011. Please read the original article here.
Author : Dr Mehta is the president of Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi.
Tags- Find more articles on - inflation | NREGA | unemployment

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