The government will do all it can to provide affordable food to those below the poverty line but cannot implement the Supreme Court's order to give free foodgrains to the poor, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said on Monday.
In an interaction with a small group of editors at his residence — his first in several years — Dr. Singh handled questions on a wide range of domestic and foreign policy matters with confidence, spontaneity and even a touch of uncharacteristic wit. “Well, I think a pigeon has been set among the cats,” he said, when his media adviser, Harish Khare, suggested he meet with journalists more often.
Asked for his views on the film, Peepli [Live], which deals with rural indebtedness and displacement, he urged all journalists to see it because “it has a moral lesson both for politicians and for the gentlemen and ladies of the media.” Humour aside, the Prime Minister's indirect message to Natha, the film's farmer protagonist who ends up forlorn at an urban construction site, was that there is no such thing as a free lunch. India has no option but to industrialise, he said. “The only way we can raise our heads above poverty is for more people to be taken out of agriculture.”
If that prescription sounded politically incorrect, Dr. Singh also took on the Supreme Court for straying into the executive's domain by ordering free food for the poor. “I respectfully submit that the Supreme Court should not go into the realm of policy formulation. I respect the sentiments behind the [court] decision that when foodgrains are rotting and people are suffering from deprivation, then some way should be found to ensure that the food needs of the deprived sections are met. But quite honestly it is not possible in this country to give free food to all the poor people.”
The Prime Minister said figures vary but if one takes the Tendulkar committee's estimates, 37 per cent of the population is below the poverty line. “How are you going to give free food to such a large segment of the population,” he asked. His government was committed to ensuring that food was available to the poor at an affordable price. “But to say that we can give foodgrains free, quite frankly, if we do that on a large scale you would destroy the incentive of our farmers to produce more food and if there is no food available for distribution what will you distribute?”
‘Debate integral to Congress'
Brushing aside media perceptions of a government beset by internal divisions and drift, Dr. Singh said debate was integral to the nature of the Congress as a “mass movement” and that the cabinets of Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi at times saw more dissonance than the United Progressive Alliance was accused of experiencing.