Food security ordinance: Why UPA's 'good intentions' are ruinous

Every two weeks or so, in an earlier time, a group of saffron-clad Buddhist monks would turn up at a dockside in Los Angelesand perform an intriguing ritual. They would conduct an elaborate prayer along the waterfront, which would invariably end with them tipping over the contents of a big plastic tub into the water. Passersby have reported that the contents of the tub were always the same: a clutch of fish, which the monks had purchased from fishermen at the harbourside, who had just come in with their day's catch. Having released the fish into the water, the monks would then bow deeply and walk away.

The monks' curious behaviour is easily explained. As Dean Karlan and Jacob Appel note in their book More Than Good Intentions: How a New Economics is Helping to Solve Global Poverty, Dean Karlan and Jacob Appel, the monks were driven by an altruistic spirit and compassion for all sentient beings. "It was," they write, "their small way of setting right something they believed was wrong. They didn't think those fish ought to be killed, so they bought their freedom."

 Food security ordinance: Why UPAs good intentions are ruinous

Reuters

Yet, for all the generosity of spirit and compassion that the monks exhibited, the monks could clearly have done better than they did, even if they were only motivated by a do-good spirit, note Karlan and Appel. For instance, they could have paid the fishermen ahead of time - and told them just to stay home. It would have saved the fishermen the effort of waking up at dawn to catch the fish - only to see them thrown back into the sea. There would also be economies on the fuel and the bait.

From the monks' experience of well-intentioned effort, matched by inefficient ways of operating, the authors extrapolate to make the observation that in order to solve real-world problems, we need more than good intentions.

The UPA government's decision to press ahead with the Food Security Ordinance on Wednesday represents, in one sense, the embrace of uneconomical and inefficient solutions - by bypassing Parliament in an undemocratic fashion - even if the underlying motive is, to give the UPA the benefit of the doubt, well-intentioned.

The moral case for the need to address the widespread hunger and malnutrition in India is easy to make: after all, India ranks 65th out of 79 countries on the Global Hunger Index designed by the International Food Policy Research Institute.And as the National Family Healthy Survey 3 noted, some 48 percent of children under five years of age are stunted (that is, too short for their age), which points to chronic malnourishment. One in five children under five years in India is "wasted", and 43 percent of them are underweight for their age.

But, as with the Buddhist monks, the UPA government's effort to address the problem with a monolithic centrally-directed scheme that fails to acknowledge the variance in State-level nutritional needs, particularly the successful models of targeted programs in the States, is inefficient and uneconomical. Worse, unlike in the case of the Buddhist monks, the UPA government's intervention is a recipe for yet more monumental corruption, and imposes a stiff, potentially ruinous, fiscal tab because its entitlements are open-ended.

For all the vocal support for the Food Security Bill from developmental economists like Amartya Sen, Jean Dreze and right-to-food activists, the arithmetic surrounding the provision has been vehemently contested by other credible economists. Even within the UPA government, there have been many expressions of lively apprehensions about the viability and sustainability of the scheme. Even if one concedes the high moral ground that the advocates of the scheme seek to claim by painting any opposition to the operational details of the scheme as "anti-poor", those differences have not yet been reconciled.

Of course, in a situation where even the principal Opposition, the BJP, has not been able summon up the courage to take on the brazen populism that underlies the proposal, that debate has not found resonance on the political plane to the extent that it ought to have. A parliamentary debate - of the sort that was envisaged in the previous session - may have opened the Food Security Bill up to scrutiny, although given the near-consensus across the political spectrum on the issue, that would failed to flesh out the deficiencies in the provision. In fact, had it not been for a political fracas over the BJP's demand for the resignation of two Union Ministers, which the government did not concede so long as Parliament was in session, the bill may have sailed through.

Which is why the UPA government's resort overnight to the Ordinance route to hustle the proposal through reeks of what columnist Pratap Bhanu Mehta called "Ceasarism" and "hubris of the highest order." Parliament is set to convene in a matter of weeks, and the feckless BJP too has fallen in line with its support for the provision, even though its own party-led State governments have in some cases done vastly better with targeted food security programs than this Centrally-administered millstone can hope to achieve. Which means the passage of the Bill was a near-certainty, even though, as has been persuasively argued, that is decidedly not a consummation that was desirable.

And yet, the UPA government had deemed it fit to bypass Parliament on so far-reaching a measure with so much by way of economic and political stake riding on it by resorting to the Ordinance route. That expedient, as Justice PN Bhagwati observed in 1987, was intended only to be selectively invoked. "The power to promulgate an Ordinance," he laid down, "is essentially a power to be used to meet an extraordinary situation and it cannot be allowed to be 'perverted to serve political ends'. It is contrary to all democratic norms that the Executive should have the power to make a law."

As this blogger points out, the Food Security Act will effectively achieve the opposite of what its title claims to achieve. "We no longer notice the newspaper headlines that the government is threatening schools with closure under the Right to Education Act." When we see similar headlines under the Food Security Act, he notes, "our reaction will be no different."

That's what happens when in the rush to be seen to be acting on "good intentions", however uneconomical or inefficient their approach, governments lose their moral compass and their sense of fine balance between "doing good" and doing right. In the run-up to Elections 2014, with partisan politics high on parties' minds, we'll likely see much more such recklessness.

Updated Date: Dec 20, 2014 19:58:57 IST