18 July 2012

Why isn’t there more political commitment in India for dealing with hunger and malnutrition?

Prof Yogendra Yadav is a Senior Fellow at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, and a leading psephologist (soneone who analyses elections--I had to look it up too).

He was not one of the IDS Bulletin/Food Justice authors, but yesterday he gave a great presentation at the launch on the above topic.

His argument went something like this (there is no paper to direct you to yet)

1.    The advent of modern Indian democracy did not disturb the ruling classes too much

2.    In India's functioning democracy (at least in terms of reasonably fair and free elections and civil and political rights that are protected and respected) the felt need of the majority of the people for hunger reduction is not an effective electoral lever

3.    This is surprising in India, for several reasons (a) opinion poll results suggest that, unlike in some other countries, India’s poor have no problem in identifying themselves with “the poor”, (b) the poor vote—more than the middle and richer classes and (c) the number of veto points in the Indian parliamentary system is relatively low compared to, say, Brazil.

4.    So what is holding the political system back from committing more to hunger reduction?

5.    First, there is an overload on elections.  Elections are a celebration.  They are one of the few mechanisms that allow the State to connect with citizens (sometimes with cash).  So a multitude of issues is dealt with through elections—this tends to work against single bigger issues like hunger.

6.    Second, scale is a real issue.  At the District level, the average population is 2 million.  This is the level at which social movements have to influence.  But most social movements do not achieve this scale (I did not get to ask why not). So social movements cannot influence District governments as easily as we might think.

7.    Third, there is a mismatch between participation and stakes.  As you go down to the grass roots, participation increases, but the power at stake decreases. The national government manages to escape popular accountability.

8.    Fourth, the deathly logic of 5 year electoral cycles dictates that governments have only 3.5 years to deliver short term tangible and visible results (the first 6 months and the last year are write offs). This of course mitigates against system transformation.

9.    The previous 4 points are supply side factors. What about the demand side? First, the demand side is fragmented along caste and ethnic lines. Regionalisation—good in many other senses—has not helped here.  Second, the structure of political parties in India makes it difficult for politicians to move up through the ranks from the shop floor (why, I don’t know—time ran out to get an answer to the question). It’s unlikely that there will be an Indian Lula. Third, while the media is on the rise and a potentially strong actor in the fight against hunger and malnutrition, we should remember that the media serves the purposes of its owners and customers, neither of which are hungry or malnourished. Fourth, monitoring mechanisms on commitment, delivery and outcomes are weak.

10.  I asked why the Right to Food Movement seemed to be an exception and the answer was that the extraordinary 2004 election.  The election was won by Congress who thought they would not win and so felt freer to make strong populist promises. They were surprised to win, and to form a government had to form an alliance with the Left who held them to their promises.  This provided the opening for the Right to Food.

A fascinating story, one that is yet to be fully tested, but one that nevertheless reinforces my view that those who care about nutrition have to make sure we look outside nutrition for fresh perspectives and ideas.

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