The costs of no food security

India is at the point where a low income democracy cannot afford to ignore the hungry

Is India's food security ordinance supportable? The debate has been vigorous. It will help to separate the questions of process from those of principle.

Whether an ambitious scheme of this magnitude should have been brought in as an executive ordinance or as a new law after parliamentary debate, is basically a procedural question. It is not unimportant, but it does not tell us whether food security is inherently desirable in India. Once we have probed desirability, it would make sense to ask whether food security is affordable, even if desirable. There is also the question of whether the Indian state has the capacity to implement an ambitious welfare programme. Lumping all of these issues together process, desirability, affordability, implementability muddies analytical waters.

But one might begin with a different issue altogether. It has been vociferously argued that the government has promulgated the food security ordinance to enhance its electoral prospects. It is unclear why that is an unworthy impulse. Democratic politics cannot easily be envisioned without the idea of winning power. Power is embraced in democratic politics, not shunned. Even a dying government thinks of rebirth. One's liking for or dislike of UPA 2 should be separated from one's judgement of food security. Few who were opposed to the NDA objected to Vajpayee's peace moves towards Pakistan or his road-building projects. The key analytical issue is whether good ideas are being married to the pursuit of power.

Moreover, the debate over legislative versus executive paths to welfare programmes seems rather misdirected, especially if Parliament does not fully function. Even otherwise, an ordinance will cease to exist if it does not receive parliamentary approval. Food security without legislative endorsement will be stillborn.

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