Manmohan Singh recently commented on the results of a national survey by the Naandi Foundation that found that 42% of the children in this country are malnourished; he called it a national shame (that amounts to one out of every three malnourished children in the world). We’ve also recently learnt that the average Indian schoolkid fares slightly better than a Kyrgyz schoolkid at maths, science and reading. If this is news to you, it turns out you’ve just not been paying attention. The 2001 National Nutrition Monitoring Bureau report says pretty much the same thing. This was a decade ago. Yes, it’s good we’ve finally noticed, but that doesn’t make it news. The NNMB report also says that 37% of the adult population has a body-mass index (BMI) of below 18.5 – the clinical definition of chronic malnourishment. Moreover, the WHO’s definition of famine is that 40% of the population of a region be severely malnourished – Binayak Sen calls us a country living through a state of stable famine.
The above list, while shameful and depressing, isn’t even an exhaustive list of food-security related problems facing this country.
So what do you suppose the people running this country are most up in arms about? If you guessed cow-slaughter and how best to punish people who eat beef, you’re right. You may now award yourself a shameful bow. the people of Madhya Pradesh have given themselves a law banning all sale and possession of beef, with punishment that this country otherwise reserves only for its rapists and murderers. This in addition to Karnataka’s bill banning cow-slaughter which is now sure to also get the President’s assent (with presidents like these…). These laws allow police officers to raid and search premises on the suspicion that an offence may take place:
The Centre felt that raiding premises merely on the assumption that an offence is “likely” could be misused and recommended that such power be limited to cases when an offence had taken place or was taking place. The amended legislation has disregarded the recommendation.
The blatant disregard for minority opinion, civil liberty, and any trace of sense apart, this law affects the poor disproportionately – beef is the cheaper than almost any other meat. Calling this communal legislation is stating the obvious. Calling it legislating taste (a la Bill Maher) is more insightful, although it does nothing to help somebody being harassed by the local police officer for the suspicion of possession of beef.
Beef is now more contraband than a kilogram of ganja or 100 grams of hashish (punishment for possession of < 1kg ganja or < 100gms of hashish : Rs. 10,000 fine or 6 months in prison). Stash your beef away safely.
Manmohan Singh was interviewed by several editors. He talks about why it is that the Government cannot randomly give away the foodgrains, even if government-owned godowns have surplus stock.
His reasoning that farmers will stop producing food if the government starts giving away free food may be a little too Ayn Rand-ish for my liking. Also, it may seem a bit obtuse to say that when you have 37 percent of your population below the poverty line, and there’s no way you can feed all of them for free, you can’t feed a some part of them (because that would be unfair to the rest, I guess). But when he takes on the Supreme Court and says that the higher judiciary in this country should not go around talking about policy formulation, I think he’s spot-on.
The higher judiciary, the Supreme Court in particular, doesn’t just uphold the law, it micromanages our lives. Its judgements range through matters great and small. It decides what’s good for the environment and what isn’t, whether dams should be built, rivers linked, mountains moved, forests felled. It decides what our cities should look like and who has the right to live in them. It decides whether slums should be cleared, streets widened, shops sealed, whether strikes should be allowed, industries should be shut down, relocated or privatised. It decides what goes into school textbooks, what sort of fuel should be used in public transport and schedules of fines for traffic offences. It decides what colour the lights on judges’ cars should be (red) and whether they should blink or not (they should). It has become the premier arbiter of public policy in this country that likes to market itself as the World’s Largest Democracy.
I think it’s fantastic that the Prime Minister has just asked the Supreme Court to mind its own business.
I also think what he had to say about people in his government disagreeing with each other, or two ministries in his government fighting it out (the Environment ministry and the Civil aviation minister are at loggerheads over the Navi Mumbai Airport. The Environment ministry also stopped Vedanta from plundering Orissa’s forests. Kamal Nath and Montek Singh have gone toe to toe) was brilliant. He points out that Nehru or Indira Gandhi’s cabinets had a lot more internal disagreement, and that disagreement should be the norm in a democracy, not something to be looked upon as a bad thing.
He also says, of his being interviewed by several top editors, that the pigeon has been set amongst the cats. Indeed!