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Activists, experts come together to criticize neo-liberal economists, favour "investment" in food security

By Our Representative
In a scathing attack on neoliberal economists, Prof Jagdish Bhagwati, Prof Arvind Panagariya, and Prof Surjit Bhalla, a high-level consultation by Gujarat-based activists and experts has said that the recent decision to include wide sections population under food security cannot be termed as a drain on budgetary resources. If Prof Hemant Shah, an economist, calculated that the “actual budgetary burden for food security will be not more than Rs 7 per capita per day”, senior activist Sejal Dand, Gujarat adviser to the Supreme Court-appointed national commissioner on food security, said, “Food security is an investment to ensure a better future of those who are go hungry.” The consultation was organized by Pathey, an Ahmedabad-based NGO specializing in budget analysis.
Shah said, “Tax collections in India are lopsided, though things have improved somewhat. While earlier the direct taxes were 20 per cent of the collection, now they are 40 per cent, which is less than western countries, where it is up to 80 per cent. Indirect taxes – under which even a below poverty person who buys up a bulb to light his house must pay tax – still form 60 per cent of the tax kitty.” He added, “There are about 3.3 crore persons pay taxes in India, but as many persons who must pay taxes do not do it. Hence, the collection is skewed.” He added, “While neo-liberals say that food security would add to the tax burden, why do they not speak about these issues?”
Dand wondered why is there no support to food security from the middle classes, especially in a “developed” state like Gujarat. “Food security is a tremendous success in Tamil Nadu, where community kitchens – called amma kitchens – are there in every village and city block. Here, anyone can have stomach full of idli or rice for just Rs 5 per plate. No one goes hungry. There is a strong tradition of providing food security in that state. With the right to food law, such a situation should prevail in every state.” In her estimate, it would not take more than Rs 5,000 crore investments to start such kitchens in each state.
Taking a different view of how food security can be funded, environmental expert Mahesh Pandya pointed out that there is an “urgent need” to link it with schemes like National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS). He said, “One should link NREGS with producing nutritious crops, especially millets, which is neglected. NREGS should be used for preserving biodiversity. This way, it would be possible to have a socially-oriented budget without the need for searching funds elsewhere. Poor environment adversely affects the deprived sections. In Gujarat, for 12 years there are no new effluent treatment plants. Who suffers as a result? The poor.”
Prof Dilip Mavlankar, a public health expert, regretted that whether it is India or Gujarat, the allocation for health care is more for physical infrastructure and less for human resources. Giving the example of Sri Lanka and Sweden, he said, at both these places paramedical and medical staff, including nurses, work with meager building facilities. Instead of making pregnant women reach primary health centres, the antenatal health workers reach households. In fact, there no need is felt for such centres in Sri Lanka. Similarly, in Sweden, they do not spend money on separate colleges for nurses, paramedical staff and doctors. One building does all the training jobs.
“In India, the health care army is without bullets – they don’t even have medicine. There is no audit of functionality of medical equipment, no statistical analysis of the type of staff needed”, he said, adding, “You need to spare doctors for medical treatment. As for public health care management is concerned, it should be done by a specialized public health care cadre, which ought to be created.” He insisted, there should be about 10 per cent tax on those food items which have higher cholesterol level. This would discourage people to eat food items which have higher fat levels.
Mahender K Jethmalani, a senior activist and a budget analyst, regretted poor spending for the marginalized communities. Giving the specific example of Gujarat, he said, instead of seven per cent population, the allocation for Dalits is quite low. “Out of Rs 60,000 crore annual plan, Dalit allocation should be Rs 4,200 crore, while the actual allocation is just Rs 3,200 crore”, he said. Trupti Shah, another senior activist, wondered why the proposed investment for fighting violence against women in the country is just about Rs 450 crore even when modest estimates suggest it would require Rs 1,200 crore. She also regretted mere lip-service to gender budgeting.



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