Home / Opinion / Online Views /  The apathy of the well-fed

To understand what the Food Security Bill could mean for millions of people, forget for a moment what you have read about how it will stoke price pressures or upset the government’s fiscal dynamics or take away the poor’s incentive to work. Focus instead on the eyes of the last kid with a distended stomach, her body reflecting the stunted growth that comes from a chronic deficiency of nutrients, minerals and vitamins. Most likely she won’t live to five.

Set that against all the very valid reasons that have been touted to trash the bill: how the expenditure involved will bloat the fiscal deficit, how there just isn’t the level of hunger any more in India that the bill seeks to address. Sound economics mostly. But what about empathy for the handful of emaciated men, women and children who still go to sleep hungry? What does the food policy promise them? Rice at 3 a kg, wheat at 2 and coarse grains at 1, under a monthly entitlement of 5 kg per person.

And we resent it. Carp against it. Pull out every manner of reason to deny them. Coming as it does from a class—the upper middle class—which has been the biggest beneficiary of the liberalisation of the economy after 1991, it smacks of an amazing lack of empathy and humanity and compassion, if not downright callousness.

For make no mistake—poverty is all-pervasive in India. Like a piece of oppressive cellophane, it is choking the life out of millions. The latest World Bank report on poverty issued on 18 April states that India accounts for one-third of the world’s poor. According to Indian government figures, around 43% of children under the age of five years are malnourished and more than half of all pregnant women aged between 15 and 49 years suffer from anaemia.

Hunger doesn’t play politics: the states that suffer from hunger and malnutrition the most include Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Bihar, Jharkhand, Orissa, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh. That’s the entire spectrum of our political sphere.

For all the hue and cry, India isn’t the first country to try and put food into the bellies of its hungry millions. The Federal Food Stamp Act of 1964 is the most significant food plan in the US. Among developing countries, Brazil has its Bolsa Familia programme, the world’s largest conditional cash-transfer programme, which has lifted more than 20 million Brazilians out of acute poverty.

So why are we up in arms against a move that for all its admitted political ramifications, promises to feed the “forgotten people"? Feeding them isn’t a favour we are doing them, it is our responsibility. It is part of our social covenant and their universal human right. In a discussion paper, “National Food Security Bill—Challenges and Options", Ashok Gulati, Jyoti Gujral and T. Nandakumar call it “a paradigm shift in addressing the problem of food security—from the current welfare approach to a rights-based approach."

A stridently vocal middle class, increasingly used to demanding its rights from a weak government, would have shown a more humane face by saying that as long as one child goes to bed hungry, we can’t spend enough. Instead of questioning the scheme itself, we might have reduced the gap just a wee bit if we had undertaken to ensure the allocated food actually reached the hungry. Instead, our middle class has become a huge financial predator on the rights of the lowliest members of our tribe. Overfed, over-entertained and over-entitled, the Indian bourgeoisie is being shown up to be hollow and uncaring.

Social empathy, that ability to understand people from other socio-economic classes, appears to be amazingly missing in our cynical response. It is what Barack Obama in his 2006 book, The Audacity of Hope, termed “a call to stand in somebody else’s shoes and see through their eyes". Empathy is a 20th century meme that we need to propagate for greater peace even as social Darwinism plays itself all around us in purblind wars and very avoidable hunger.

Economists have written about how we tend to have empathy for those we can identify with—the young, working girl out for a movie with a friend who got raped is one of us. She’s someone we know and identify with and her gruesome rape and eventual death shocks us into action. But the hunger of a little girl living in a small village in Jharkhand is so far out of our scheme of things that we are willing to accept any argument that claims she doesn’t exist at all or isn’t hungry.

While reciprocal altruism is a coin that has made human knowledge sharing possible, empathy will bring more peace and less human suffering. We do not anymore cast out our Stephen Hawkings because we honour talent wherever it may be found. In many ways, we have defeated nature’s natural selection by using resources for propagating ourselves.

Our unique human status has given us imaginative mirroring, enabling us to do the un-Darwinian, carry along our weak and old. The polar opposite of poverty is justice and fair play for the poor. Resource allocation might have been historically decided by wars or favourable matings but a global civilisation needs to develop a cloud empathy that dissolves earlier tribal boundaries. No human being, by virtue of being human, should ever need to grow hungry, says our empathyphilic brain. That might be the better context to examine the Food Security Bill.

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