Judging Indian Democracy on Right to Food

There is no basic human right more important than the right to adequate food. This right is recognized as a basic human right within the U.N. Universal Human Rights framework. Specifically, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) (U.N. 1948), Article 25, states that “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and his family, including food.”

In practice, however, the right to food is widely ignored by the most vociferous human rights campaigners, as well as the leaders of the world's largest democracy in India. This is particularly true when the critics compare human rights records of India and China. The harshest criticism by various human rights groups is reserved for China, while India gets only a minor slap on the wrist for its most egregious violations of basic human right to food, shelter, clothing, health and education.

Since 2001, even the Indian Supreme Court has upheld the right to food as a basic human right, and demanded that the government provide a hot lunch to every Indian schoolchild. On paper, 120 million Indian children receive this benefit ordered by the apex court.

Has anything changed on the ground since that historic ruling? To answer this question, let's look at some recent data.

In IFPRI's most recent global hunger report, India still ranks at 65, worse than Pakistan at 58, and much worse than China at 5.

The first India State Hunger Index (Ishi) report in 2008 found that Madhya Pradesh had the most severe level of hunger in India, comparable to Chad and Ethiopia. Four states — Punjab, Kerala, Haryana and Assam — fell in the 'serious' category. Gujarat, 13th on the Indian list is below Haiti, ranked 69. The authors said India's poor performance was primarily due to its relatively high levels of child malnutrition and under-nourishment resulting from calorie deficient diets.

In its latest issue, the harsh reality of hunger and malnutrition in India is described by the Economist magazine as follows:

"India-wide, more than 43% of Indian children under five are malnourished, a third of the world’s total. Over 35% of Indians are illiterate and over 20m children out of school. For all its successes, including six decades of elections and a constitution that introduced the notion of equal rights to an inequitable society, India’s abiding failure is its inability to provide aid and economic opportunity to millions of its impoverished citizens."

According to World Bank's HNP (Health and Nutrition) paper "India's Undernourished Children", here is some data on the scale of the problem India faces:

1. 47% of Indian children under 5 suffer from malnutrition.
2. 60 million in all, highest in the world.
3. Two million Indian children under 5 die each year.
4. At least one million of them die from low immunity attributable to malnutrition.
5. Ten million children out of the statistical range a year suffer from lack of motor and cognitive skills for the rest of their lives.
6. Most of the retardation occurs between two to three years of age.

In 2008, Indian Planning Commission member Syeda Hameed acknowledged that India is worse than Bangladesh and Pakistan when it comes to nourishment and is showing little improvement.

Speaking at a conference on "Malnutrition an emergency: what it costs the nation", she said even Prime Minister Manmohan Singh during interactions with the Planning Commission has described malnourishment as the "blackest mark".

"I should not compare. But countries like Bangladesh, Pakistan and Sri Lanka are better," she said. The conference was organized last year by the Confederation of Indian Industry and the Ministry of Development of Northeastern Region.

According to India's Family Health Survey, almost 46 percent of children under the age of three are undernourished - an improvement of just one percent in the last seven years. This is only a shade better than Sub-Saharan Africa where about 35 percent of children are malnourished.

India has recently been described as a "nutritional weakling" by a British report.

Among the developing countries ranked by NGO Action Aid for Hunger, Brazil wins the top spot with B grade (no country gets an A on a scale from A to E), with the aid agency praising President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva's support for land reform and community kitchens for the poor.

ActionAid said Brazil's success shows "what can be achieved when the state has both resources and political will to tackle hunger".

China (B grade) is also gets high marks for cutting the number of hungry by 58 million in 10 years through strong state support for smallholder farmers.

But the report is critical of resurgent India, which receives the lowest possible E (essentially an F) grade for hunger. It says 30 million Indians have been added to the ranks of the hungry since the mid-1990s and 46% of children are underweight. Pakistan, with grade D, is also ranked low, with 31% of its children underweight. Bangladesh, receiving C grade, is praised for reducing the number of chronically food-insecure people from 40 million to 27 million in the past 10 years and for improving childhood nutrition in the past two decades. But the report says Bangladesh has a long way to go to reduce overall malnutrition and build a sustainable agricultural system.

India's failure to follow through on the Supreme Court order of right to food has not deterred the Indian politicians from creating even more legislation granting new rights rather than ensuring implementation of the rights already created. It has introduced a right-to-information law and a vast new public-works program, known as NREGA, that guarantees all rural households 100 days of employment a year. Re-elected last year, the Congress Party government pushed through a law that seeks to guarantee free compulsory education to all children between the ages of six and 14. A bill to uphold Indians’ right to food could follow. It'll be a first in the region. As far as I know, no such legal rights to food exist in China or Pakistan.

However, as the Economist story puts it, the poor Indians "have recently grown rich in legal “rights”. In theory these guarantee them education, health, food and many other boons. What good, students of Indian poverty wonder, does this do them?"

Given the fact that India ranks at 171 out of 175 ranked on public health spending (less than 1% of GDP), the new rights are not likely to substantially change access to health care by the poor Indians. According to the Economist, "over 80% of health-care spending in India is in the private sector, for example, yet any “right-to-health” legislation is likely to focus on non-functioning public clinics".

No too long ago, Beijing's Tienanmen Square was the scene of the Chinese government crackdown by the units of the People's Liberation Army (PLA) against mass students protests in 1989. Since the death of Chairman Mao and passing of the leadership to late Deng Xiaoping in 1980s, the Chinese communist party has pursued liberalizing the nation's economy without political liberalization, in the same way other East Asians did earlier. Such a strategy has allowed them to pursue rapid industrialization with accelerated economic growth over the last two decades, while forcefully controlling the chaos on the streets, to lift a record number people out of poverty. China's large neighbor India has failed to use a period of high economic growth to lift tens of millions of people out of poverty, falling far short of China’s record in protecting its population from the ravages of chronic hunger, United Nations officials said recently. Last year, British Development Minister Alexander contrasted the rapid growth in China with India's economic success - highlighting government figures that showed the number of poor people had dropped in the one-party communist state by 70% since 1990 but had risen in the world's biggest democracy by 5%.

In many ways, the fundamental rights are better respected in China than the democracies in South Asia. Clearly, democracy in developing countries like India and Pakistan is highly overrated. Unlike the one party communist state in China, the much-hyped South Asian democracies have failed to deliver good governance and the basic necessities like food, clothing, shelter, sanitation, heathcare and education.

The oft-repeated rhetoric that "even the worst democracy is better than the best dictatorship" can not save democracy, particularly in Pakistan. If the current crop of elected politicians is really serious about strengthening democracy, it is important for its leadership to pursue a broad good governance agenda in Pakistan with education and training of politicians as the center piece. It is important for them to revive the idea of a school of government in Islamabad to increase the chances for democracy to survive and thrive in Pakistan. Unless the politicians find a way to improve governance to solve people's problems, the nation will be condemned to repeat the past history of democracy's failure in Pakistan.

Here's a video clip of campaign for right to food in India:

Related Links:

Indian Democracy Overrated

Theory and Practice of Right to Food

South Asia's War on Hunger Takes Back Seat

Food, Shelter and Clothing in India and Pakistan

Haq's Musings

India's Rights Approach

Grinding Poverty in Resurgent India

Why is Democracy Failing in Pakistan?

Right to Food in India Campaign


Riaz Haq said…
Here are a few excerpts from a Countercurrent piece on Indian democracy:

“Democracy in India is only top-dressing on an Indian soil which isessentially undemocratic.”

—B.R. Ambedkar, in 1949, in "Thus Spoke Ambedkar, Vol. 1: A Stake in the Nation"

Over sixty years after Dr Ambedkar, the architect of the Indian Constitution, talked about the ‘essentially undemocratic’ nature of the ‘Indian soil’ his insight remains relevant to any discussion on human rights and civil liberties in the country. For, without examining closely the very foundations on which the fancy structures of Indian democracy and its political and social institutions rest, it is easy to mistake them for the real thing.

Yes, there is such a thing called democracy in India. There are regular elections and peaceful transfers of power. There is a judiciary that is relatively independent of the legislature and an executive that often operates with a mind of its own. Yes, India is also the world’s ‘largest democracy’ by the sheer size of its population. All these are fruits of many past struggles and something to be proud of as many developing countries around the world are still run by absolute dictatorships.

What Dr Ambedkar was referring to however was the quality of the democracy that ‘Indian soil’- with its caste system, vast economic inequalities, ethnic and gender discrimination is really capable of nurturing. So the question to ask is how conducive or hostile is this ‘Indian soil’ to the functioning of democracy and the flowering of democratic processes or culture? What needs to be done to improve the ‘fertility’ of this soil so that a genuine democracy can be established in this land? A true democracy in any society is after all not the same as the holding of regular elections or going through the routine motions of convening a parliament and having a separate bureaucracy and judiciary. Maybe these are the minimum institutions needed for a democracy but by no means are they enough when they are set in the deeply unjust and oppressive conditions of India society.
Even today in many parts of the country while there is a ban on ‘cow slaughter’ that is effectively implemented there is no such privilege for people from the Dalit, Adivasi or Muslim communities. In that sense these hapless people do not even have ‘cow rights’ leave alone the more esoteric ‘human rights’.
History of the Human Rights Movement

I want to bring to your attention some of the peculiarities of the Indian civil rights movement historically. In the post-Independence period one of the first organisations born to take up the issue of civil rights of citizens explicitly was the Association for Protection of Democratic Rights or APDR, in 1972 at the height of the political repression against the Naxalite upsurge in West Bengal. The organisation is still there after all these years and some very courageous and exemplary work. ....


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