One useful way to understand a fundamental flaw in policymaking in India since 2004 is to ask a rhetorical question: why is the ruling United Progressive Alliance aggressively pushing for a law guaranteeing the right to food rather than one for the right to clean drinking water?

Take a look at the numbers. A February report by the National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO) shows that the proportion of households not getting two square meals a day dropped to about 1% in rural India and 0.4% in urban India in 2009-10. An earlier survey in 2004 showed that around 2% of Indian households experienced hunger at some point in the preceding 12 months.

The latest data suggests that around 10 million Indians do not get enough to eat, which is undoubtedly a national shame. Now consider another number: some 100 million Indians do not have access to clean drinking water, according to data from the World Bank. So Indians who lack clean drinking water far outnumber those who cannot afford food.

And it is the failure to provide clean drinking water that is a bigger cause of the malnutrition problem rather than a lack of food, as economist Arvind Virmani pointed out in a recent article in TheTimes of India: “Analysis of the state-wise 2004-05 National Sample Survey and the 2005-06 National Family Health Survey data led to the conclusion that the most important cause of malnutrition in India was the abysmal state of public health in terms of sanitation, pure drinking water and public knowledge about the importance of cleanliness…and nutrition".

These are the facts. One, India has far more malnourished people than hungry people, which tells us that the malnutrition crisis is due to factors beyond access to food. Two, sanitation and clean drinking water are key contributors to the crisis. Three, international data shows that much of the difference between malnutrition in India and malnutrition in other countries with similar income levels is explained by public health variables.

So let us return to the question asked at the beginning of this article: why does the ruling alliance prefer to push a right to food law rather than one that guarantees a right to clean drinking water?

My answer is as follows: the government will have to increase its subsidy bill to provide cheap food for everyone but it will actually have to build good drinking water systems across the country if it has to make access to clean water a legal right. The first involves subsidizing while the second involves building. The first requires unfunded budgetary provisions while the second requires technical and managerial competence down to the smallest hamlet. The first is second nature to our political class while the second will require a radical shift in governance.

The eagerness to spend more to provide a larger food subsidy rather than use the money to build modern sanitation systems captures the quintessence of the policy skew in India, towards subsidies and away from capital spending. The two Manmohan Singh governments have cumulatively spent close to 11 trillion for subsidies since 2004 (and I have not adjusted these numbers for inflation). Some of these subsidies must undoubtedly have reached the poorest Indians, but it is safe to say that much of it was either pilfered or was captured by powerful interests. Look at the fuel subsidies that have benefited everyone from middle class housewives to owners of sport utility vehicles (SUVs).

Or consider another example: the Indian government has spent close to 2 trillion on providing jobs under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act. Surely it is time to ask whether the money would have been better spent on rural roads or minor irrigation projects or village schools. What would have made a more lasting impact on rural poverty? To ask the question is to be instantly branded as an enemy of the people.

The fundamental pathology of Indian policy is the overwhelming preference for subsidies over public goods. The political support for the right to food law is a classic illustration of this pathology, even when the data suggests that the roots of the malnutrition problem lie elsewhere.

To be sure, the men and women in the right to food campaign have earnestly battled to put the malnutrition crisis at the centre of national discourse. They are close to achieving what they set out to do many years ago, and all of them mean well. But it is well known that the road to hell is paved with good intentions, as India has seen over the decades. We have seen how protection to domestic industry led to an inefficient economy, rent control laws destroyed the housing stock in our cities, laws meant to protect tribals by preventing them for selling forest produce to outsiders benefited local tribal elite…the list is a long one.

The right to food law has been sold as a grand gesture in humanitarianism, in a country that generally prefers emotional tugs to factual thinking. It is actually a clever ploy to win votes in 2014, even if its costs leave behind fiscal wreckage.

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