The Wrongs About The Right To Food

How does the government hope to choose between the destitute, the poor, and the barely surviving; or if you like, the starving, the chronically hungry, the malnourished, the anaemic and the food insecure?

‘How much poorer do we need to be?’ asked Ravi, a harassed and emaciated young autorickshaw driver I recently met in Bangalore. He was shocked to find that he did not qualify as ‘BPL’ (Below Poverty Line), and therefore won’t get what he had hoped for at the ration shop. As he put it, he and his wife work ‘all the time’, and yet with two ailing parents, they were barely surviving. 

I suspect our barely surviving millions live with the same anguish I saw in Ravi’s eyes: am I poor enough to qualify? Will I get a BPL card? Worse still, our Ravis (or their overworked wives and ailing parents) have absolutely no voice in determining those ‘qualifications’ they are required to meet. Being human is not enough; being citizen is not enough; being poor and hungry is not enough either. They have to be exactly as poor and hungry as the government requires them to be.

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This, in essence, is the human face of ‘targeting’. Under targeting, the state establishes criteria to determine which groups ‘truly deserve’ whatever benefits it chooses to offer. Universal regimes, on the other hand, give benefits to the entire population as a matter of right. Remember how the IMF championed targeting during the glorious days of structural adjustment? It went from country to country forcing states to dismantle universal social policy regimes and wreaked havoc on the poor.

It is disconcerting, to say the least, that targeting seems to be the officially favoured approach with respect to the Right to Food. With the pervasive nature of hunger and malnutrition in India today, one might wonder how a universal right to food can even be in question. Should every Indian not have a right to be free from hunger and food insecurity? Should anything less suffice? I suppose when a government needs court orders to get rotting grains to its starving citizens, and a veteran minister ‘mistakes’ a supreme court order for a casual suggestion, nothing can be taken for granted. And now comes the PM’s rebuke to the SC for its alleged intervention in policy-making. But how about the gross failures of policy-making that made the court’s intervention necessary in the first place? A targeted approach to food security, based on a myopic premise of ‘resource efficiency’ will be yet another addition to that long line of policy failures.

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What’s wrong with targeting?

The argument for targeting is potentially very seductive. Here is how it goes. If it could, the government would feed every hungry person. But it can’t. It has only a limited amount of resources, which it cannot ‘fritter away’. It neither has enough grain (barring what is in the warehouses) nor enough money (barring the revenues it ‘foregoes’ from the corporate sector). More importantly, under the universal scheme, the rich would abuse the government’s goodwill and grab even these scarce resources. It must choose therefore to feed only those who are the ‘most deserving’. And how does it do that? Choosing between the rich and poor would be relatively easy. But in India’s vast and growing landscape of hunger, targeting means choosing between the destitute, the poor, and the barely surviving; or if you like, the starving, the chronically hungry, the malnourished, the anaemic and the food insecure.

While planners and technocrats see important differences between these categories of people, the truth is that all of them need food support. None of them earn an income that can buy a basic, nutrition-adequate food basket. The real question before us is why this is the case: Why is it that so many people get so little value for their work that they must go hungry?

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Naturally, where the need for support is so pervasive, targeting constitutes a rather difficult exercise: an exercise that involves some serious questions of justice and democracy.

For one, can a right based on ‘targeting’ be considered a ‘right’ at all? It certainly cannot qualify as an inalienable right as human rights should be, and would contradict the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. By vesting in the state the authority to determine who is entitled to that right, it reduces the ‘right’ to a matter of discretion, or at best a a highly tenuous and negotiable moral obligation. Is it really so different from you and I trying to help someone in need when we feel have some money to spare? Legislation based on such an unclear distinction between rights and discretion can be rather dangerous, particularly where so many lives hang in balance.

Second, targeting involves very serious questions of justice. How can the state justly choose the ‘most deserving’? How does it determine what is a just distribution of food? As Amartya Sen has warned, consensus on such questions of justice is difficult to reach and require reasoned public discussion. ‘Reasoned’ discussion however, is rendered difficult, if not impossible, when unequal power relations exist. Some have the power to unfairly influence public discourse while others are marginalized.

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Most importantly: can the question be settled justly if the poor and the hungry are systematically excluded from these discourses? As of now, the vital norms that determine the lives of the poor are almost entirely set by others. This itself is a kind of injustice, of having to live by norms we have not participated in establishing — but others have established for us. It violates a basic principle of self-determination. It reflects, as well, a structural deficit of democracy, particularly unacceptable from elites who regularly milk the democracy cow for electoral gains or for glory at the global stage.

A targeted approach to food (or basic needs) is both unjust and undemocratic in this sense of denying self-determination. A universal approach avoids the injustice of violating self-determination. However, a universal approach may err in that it treats unequals as equals, by giving the hungry and the non-hungry the same right. But so does electoral democracy in deeply unequal societies. Are we ready to let the poorest have guaranteed rights to political representation as well? Given the paucity of honest politicians, how about guaranteeing two honest politicians per poor person at three rupees a piece?

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Absurdities aside, surely the way to reduce the conflict between democracy and inequality is to reduce inequality rather than dilute democracy. The same goes for a right as vital as the right to food — the solution is not to restrict the right but to remove the constraints that prevent it from being enjoyed equally by all. A targeted approach takes these constraints as given. It allows the state to constantly invoke those ‘constraints’, negotiate its targets and manoeuvre its obligations to the hungry. The state still retains the power to decide who it wants to feed and when. The citizens’ right to food becomes a residual of state power.

But most critically: targeting removes from public scrutiny — and the purview of legislation — the fundamental reasons as to why the state’s constraints come to exist in the first place. Why indeed is there not ‘enough’ money or ‘enough’ grain? Could we have more money, for example, by reducing write-offs to business? Could we have more grain by reversing policies which force farmers out of farming? It is precisely in this potential to raise these questions that the greatest strength of universalism lies. By giving every citizen a right to food, it creates an obligation for the state to reorder its priorities, rather than constantly pleading resource constraints. It reduces the state’s wiggle room to play with hunger. In sum, it gives the public greater ammunition to scrutinize how governments define their constraints and priorities.

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Universalism and beyond

A major caveat, however. If our goal is to really get to the root causes of hunger, then even a universal right to food will not do: we must insist on a broad understanding of that right as well. In the current discussions, ‘Right to Food’ means the right to consume a certain amount of food. No more. But the right to food can go much further than that. As the global peasant movements demand, the Right to Food must also include the right to determine how food is produced. These movements point to a deeper, structural injustice: the majority of the world’s hungry are those who produce food — but are powerless to determine how food is produced or consumed. Right now, the power to determine food production resides with large agribusiness or with governments. Both are focused on growing ‘more’ food: one for profit and the other for political power, and with terrible consequences.

This is why rich governments are engaging in land grab of massive proportions. According to a recent report, some 125 million acres (roughly equal to Sweden) has been grabbed by rich countries for outsourcing agricultural production:

“Visit a supermarket in Abu Dhabi and you’ll be greeted by row after row of picture-perfect produce .. It’s likely those rows of shiny vegetables and fruit came from an improbable source: Ethiopia, a country practically synonymous with famine. Yes, Africa, where one in three people is malnourished, is now growing tomatoes and butter lettuce for export... Ethiopia’s biggest greenhouse farming operation is kept hidden from curious, or hungry, eyes...” (See ‘Famine-ridden Ethiopia: What’s the new global source for fresh, shiny produce?’)

Some eighty Indian companies, allegedly with support from the Indian government, are active in this area as well. In 2009, a Bangalore-based company with large agricultural projects in Ethiopia claimed to hold “one of the largest agriculture land banks in the world”. As Kenya’s Daily Nation reported in June 2009:

“India leads the "land grabbing" race and so far Indian agricultural investment has been more than $2.5 billion. India's total investment in Ethiopia was $300 million three years ago and has now grown to $ 4.3 billion. It is double the amount of Western aid offered to Ethiopia” (See ‘Amid hunger, foreign companies in race to 'grab' Ethiopia's arable land’)

Equally remarkable developments are occurring in the area of genetic engineering, the other much-loved ‘solution’ to hunger. For example, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Monsanto and USAID have teamed up to take genetic engineering to new heights. The Foundation has invested $23.1 million in 500,000 shares of Monsanto stock. But there is more:

“They also need the power of U.S. government funding. That is where the U.S. Agency for International Development and the Casey-Lugar come in. USAID is now headed up by former Gates employee Rajiv Shah. The Casey-Lugar Global Food Security act ties foreign aid to GMOs. When the Gates Foundation places a bet, they like to hold all the cards.” See ‘Monsanto in Gates' Clothing? The Emperor's New GMOs’)

In this perverse race to grow more food, a justiciable Right to Food, interpreted narrowly, can become a dangerous double-edged sword. It may well lend legitimacy to these anti-people pro-profit growth strategies, which governments will support in the name of fulfilling the right to food.

Therefore, along with laws that govern food distribution, we also need laws that govern food production. We need laws that prevent profiteering from food and land and from vesting all food-related decisions with corporations. Right to Food must also mean that food producing communities have the right to determine how food is to be produced. This is what global social movements are calling food sovereignty, and this is what people in some of the world’s poorest countries are struggling for. Haitians, for instance, began to mobilize for food sovereignty even before they had recovered their loved ones from the January earthquake. Bolivia, Ecuador, Mali, Senegal and Venezuela have put food sovereignty in their constitutions.

In India, Kerala’s Food Security Action Scheme appears to go beyond the narrow notion of food security towards a more comprehensive strategy. The 2008 legislation which aims to prevent paddy-producing land and wetland from being diverted to other uses, particularly construction, is an important piece in this strategy. The Action Scheme also calls explicitly for rejuvenating fallow land so as to increase agricultural production. In a fascinating experiment which encourages women to take up agriculture, the state’s anti-poverty mission, Kudumbashree, has brought some 65,000 acres of land under cultivation. The cultivators are groups of women who jointly lease land, cultivate it, decide how much of their produce they wish to consume and sell the surplus to local markets.

As I travelled through Kerala to meet Kudumbashree farmers, I was struck by the changes it has already brought about in women’s lives. Most are/were agricultural labourers but now see a possibility of becoming independent producers. For them, the act of farming seemed to deliver a much stronger, more palpable food security that came from having control over their production and their produce. Their biggest problem is indeed the oldest one: of not owning land. As this experiment clearly indicates, the right to food cannot be realized without opening up these classic (and unsettled) questions of land ownership and agrarian relations.

While many would agree that these questions have serious implications for food security, they will immediately warn against ‘trying to load too much on to a single act’ (the proposed Food Security Act that is). The question is not ‘how much’ but ‘what’. Laws/rights are manifestations of social relations. They can either simply legitimise unequal social relations or open up possibilities for changing them.

Universalising the right to food opens up possible — albeit not unequivocal — paths to challenge the unequal social relations which govern the food economy. A targeted approach on the other hand provides a tool to manage and legitimise those inequities. And it gives states and policy-makers the moral impunity to do so, in the name of serving only the ‘truly deserving’.

Ananya Mukherjee Reed is Associate Professor, Political Science and Development Studies at York University, Toronto, Ontario, Canada


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