Should Food Be a Right for the Poor?

That, according to the NY Times headline, is the question being asked by the nation of India. The actual focus of the article is on competing ideas of how to deliver government-subsidized food to those so poor that they would otherwise not have enough. Even if one could learn enough from one Times article to adequately consider that question, this article would not be the one.

It describes a debate going on within the ruling Congress Party on whether the current government food distribution system should be expanded and the right to food be made part of India's Constitution, or whether, as the Times' Jim Yardley describes the alternative, the country should "begin to unshackle the poor from the inefficient, decades-old government food distribution system and try something radical, like simply giving out food coupons, or cash?"

Well, when you put it like that, Jim . . . for gosh sake, yes, unshackle those poor people! I mean, if I were to come across a bunch of shackled, starving people, the first thing I would do would be to unshackle them! No wonder they're starving, they probably can't even reach the food! After all,
Many economists and market advocates within the Congress Party agree that the poor need better tools to receive their benefits but believe existing delivering system needs to be dismantled, not expanded; they argue that handing out vouchers equivalent to the bag of grain would liberate the poor from an unwieldy government apparatus and let them buy what they please, where they please.
Yes! Liberate those people! Let them buy what they please, where they please! Wow, that sounds like a great deal for India's poor, doesn't it?

Call me a gloomy gus, but it almost sounds too good to be true. That's some loaded language Yardley is using to describe the possibilities. And, as far as you can tell from this article, there are only two: Put having enough food to live in India's Constitution while keeping poor people shackled to an old (not sure why its age matters, independent of how well it's actually serving people — tragically unhip?), inefficient system rife with corruption, or (cue the harp music and the sparkly shit) Magic! The magic of the Free Market!

Yardley refers to "many economists and market advocates", but he quotes only one economist in this story, briefly, with no indication as to how zie would be inclined to answer hir own question.
“The question is whether there is a role for the market in the delivery of social programs,” said Bharat Ramaswami, a rural economist at the Indian Statistical Institute. “This is a big issue: Can you harness the market?”
But the market is already involved in this system, deeply, broadly, and corruptly.
Moneylenders are common across rural India, often providing loans at extortionate rates. Some farmers hand over food booklets as collateral.
There's some free market action, right there. When government inspectors extort payments from clerks who sell the subsidized grain, they're just doing a little business on the side, but business it is.

To the extent that the problem is corruption or inefficiency among those responsible for providing the food booklets or, as also cited in the article, low-level officials having extra booklets printed for themselves and their families, or outright stealing money from the program, turning the food distribution system over to a voucher or cash distribution system solves nothing. You don't solve the problem of theft by giving the thieves something different but of equal value to steal.

Yardley says that India "vanquished food shortages during the 1960s with the Green Revolution", "has had one of the world’s fastest-growing economies during the past decade", yet "poverty and hunger indexes remain dismal". Are there any reasons for that other than a corrupt and inefficient government food distribution system? If there are, Yardley doesn't mention them, other than a brief mention of cultural customs such as one in which a groom's family is expected to provide a "bride price" to the bride's family.

That custom left the poster family for Indian poverty whom Yardley has chosen landless and impoverished, "yet he and his wife kept having children." Ah, that's the other problem, then, besides the natural decrepitude of government programs. The funny old customs and irresponsible child-having of poor people. Some traditional customs may, indeed, contribute to keeping the poor impoverished, but exploration of that issue seems to be outside the scope of this article.

Still, let it not be said that the Times reporter is lacking in compassion for such folk. In fact, he begins the article with a description of the malnutrition ward of an Indian hospital into which the father of this family "and his ailing children have staggered . . . after falling through India’s social safety net." The article is illustrated with graphic photos of more starving children.

So, we get the pix of starving dark-skinned children, with their funny-custom-having, inexplicably-breeding, illiterate parents, and examples of corruption within the food-distribution system, and a shocking, if vague, statistic: "Studies show that 70 percent of a roughly $12 billion budget is wasted, stolen or absorbed by bureaucratic and transportation costs." (How many studies? Of what kind? Who carried them out — scientists, or "market advocates"? Dunno.) We are given Yardley's summation of what "many economists and market advocates" think — Unshackle the poor! — the rallying cry of market advocates the world over, no doubt.

Of the advocates for including the right to food in the Constitution, and for expanding the existing food entitlement, we hear only that the Congress Party has won votes, especially in rural areas, by supporting such entitlements, and that to its president, Sonia Gandhi, "and many left-leaning social allies, making a food a legal right would give people like Mr. Bhuria a tool to demand benefits that rightfully belong to them." Not much of a case made on this side of the question. No harnessing of powerful forces, no unshackling for the poor.

Toward the end of the second online page of this article, there is an acknowledgment that "efforts are underway to reform the national system. Tracking of grain shipments has been computerized in one Indian state, for example, so that they cannot be diverted and resold by corrupt officials.

In any case, Yardley does not feel that, in order to attempt to understand this complex issue, we need to hear from the likes of the President of India (and her left-leaning allies) as to what other reforms have been or could be undertaken to improve the system, or why they feel it is better to do so than to change to a cash or coupon system. The question of whether the food necessary to survive should be considered a right must be examined in the light of the votes such an idea brings to its supporters, but the motives of "market advocates" need not be examined further than their unquestioned desire to unshackle the poor.

I am quite obviously not qualified to address the question of how India can best meet the needs of the desperately poor people among its population. Indian Shakers could perhaps tell us more. I do know, however, that when politicians and "market advocates" start implementing their plans for "harnessing the free market" to serve powerless people, it is rather those powerless people, generally given no say in the process, who are more likely to be harnessed, and the free market unshackled.

And I also know that how you talk about a thing matters. How the press covers an issue has everything to do with whether solutions seem possible, and what solutions get considered. And the NY Times is a flamingly liberal newspaper. I know that because, well, because I've heard it described that way so many times that it must be true, right?

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