Friday, January 28, 2011

Biraj Patnaik on Right to Food Bill: The current model of growth will tear this country apart

The current model of growth will tear this country apart: Biraj Patnaik

There is strong dissonance between the vision of India that successive governments have been pursuing since the start of the liberalisation era and the India that is the reality of the common man, says Biraj Patnaik, principal adviser to the Commissioners of Supreme Court on the right to food. If this highly unequal, unfair pattern of jobless growth is not checked soon, India is surely headed towards a humanitarian crisis, he warns.


OWSA: Could you please share with us the mandate with which the office of the Commissioners of Supreme Court (CSC) was established? 

Biraj Patnaik: The office was set up as an independent monitoring system to ensure that the central and state governments were following and complying with the SC’s orders as part of the landmark Right to Food case. As you may be aware this case is the longest running case on right to food anywhere in the world and the SC has passed a series of landmark orders, over 80 by now, that have led to several  watershed schemes. These include the universalisation of Mid-day Meal scheme and the Integrated Child Development Scheme. The ICDS is the only institutional mechanism that deals with the malnourishment of children under the age of 6 in India. There are now efforts being made to expand the case to include provisions for homeless individuals in urban areas; to provide for food, shelter and medical support so that they don’t die on the streets.

One responsibility of the CSCs is to monitor whether the schemes are actually delivering their promise to the target groups. What are the bottle necks, what are the corruption issues, what are the policy issues etc? It is our job to examine whether the government is allocating enough funds to the programme and whether these funds are actually reaching the grassroots. Upon identification, we raise these issues with the central and state government. If they remain unresolved we can take the governments to court.

Two, the CSCs are also mandated to proactively engage the government in improving the implementation of these schemes. Over the last seven years the mandate has considerably increased in response to the overwhelming support of our work from citizens, nonprofit organisations and other independent entities. So now, the commissioners have a presence in 15 states. And while the Ministry of Rural Development supports the functioning of this office, the commissioners’ positions at the state and central level are honorary in nature.

OWSA: You mention bottlenecks in policy and implementation, could you elaborate? 
 On one level we battle with grave issues of corruption, non-implementation and a complete lack of intent. On another, we help identify structural flaws that may be interfering in the smooth functioning of right to food schemes. For example, we know that the maximum damage by malnourishment occurs by the age of 2. Yet the ICDS scheme targets children between the ages of 3 to 6. Or, there are very vulnerable sections of the society that are not targeted appropriately by any government schemes; I identified the urban homeless as one such group. We need to provide them with a decent living wage and a roof on their head.  Over the last year and a half the court has taken a very strong stand to ensure that such basic necessities are provided for by the government.

OWSA: The growing trend of the urban homeless and migratory workers is also one that can be traced back to a large extent to farm distress. With rising prices, falling productivity, an unsustainable agricultural system and an unsympathetic government, we seem to be in the midst of a perfect storm. What is your analysis of the situation? 
 There is a grave agrarian crisis. At least, after years of denial, there is finally some acknowledgment that there is a problem. However, this acknowledgement is not leading to better policies, to anything concrete. The only tangible effort I can think of is the farm loan waiver, which was a one time waiver for farmers in distress. While it did help a lot of people, it was at best a Band-Aid solution. The only solution ultimately is to increase investment in agriculture, especially dry-lands agriculture and increase support for farmers who grow subsistence crops like millets as opposed to cash crops. The government does not offer a minimum support price for millets despite knowing that from a nutrition perspective, from a climate change perspective, from a resources perspective, they are far superior to our staple crops of wheat and rice. When it comes to a resource as dear as water, we have no plans or policy in place  for a sustainable irrigation system.

Read full text at: OneWorld South Asia



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