Dishonest to say we can’t afford food subsidy because of fiscal deficit, says Montek Singh Ahluwalia

Nobel laureate Amartya Sen on Friday said the idea of a National Food Security Bill was “a matter of appreciation and support” and the tabling of the Bill in Parliament was a big achievement in itself. Dr. Sen was addressing 1,500 students and faculty members at IIT-Delhi.

However, he noted several shortcomings in the Bill, especially with regard to children’s entitlements.

Stressing the significance of early childhood for ensuring lifetime health and wellbeing, Dr. Sen said children’s entitlements under the Bill were weak.

Present at this panel discussion on “Hunger and Nutrition: Time to Act” were Montek Singh Ahluwalia, Deputy Chairman, Planning Commission, and Shantha Sinha, Chairperson, National Commission for the Protection of Child Rights.

“The country can afford a reduction in subsidy. For example, we may not be able to subsidise petroleum [and] can do without it,” said Mr. Ahluwalia.

He said the amount of subsidy provided by the government was around Rs.74,000 crore for 2011-12. The proposed Bill would require an additional Rs.20,000 crore. The Bill would be introduced in the budget session of Parliament, which begins on February 21.

“I don’t think the government or anyone else should say that we can’t afford the food subsidy because of the fiscal deficit… that would be actually dishonest,” said Mr. Ahluwalia.

Pointing to the politics behind subsidies, Dr. Sen said that while there were powerful lobbies for diesel and LPG subsidies, and exemptions of customs duties on gold imports, there was none for children’s rights. This reflected not only the imbalances arising from power and influence but also those in spending priorities.

Dr. Sen argued that the improved practice of democracy was the way to bring constructive change. He cautioned that health, nutrition and elementary education were important in themselves as well as for long-run economic success. Neglecting children was unjust and an economic blunder.

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