The irony could scarcely have been more bitter, even cruel. The distinguished economist, Jean Dreze, who had choreographed the Food Security Act was on Thursday detained for two hours at a police station in Jharkhand. The insult can hardly shore up the standing of the government in a state that has wallowed in the mire of poverty, backwardness and political instability ever since its creation close to two decades ago. It beggars belief that his scheduled public presentation on food security was deemed by the police as “unauthorised” ~ a strained spin on intolerance that has influenced perceptions of academic presentations, food habits, and inter-personal relationships. Nay more, he and two other Right to Food activists were “threatened with arrest under certain Sections and jail”. Like Amartya Sen, with whom he has co-authored An Uncertain Glory: India and its Contradictions, Dreze accords enormous weightage to empirical evidence. Without the foggiest idea of what the three would have told the meeting, the authorities by disallowing the assembly and then dragging Dreze and his associates to the police station have palpably proceeded from conclusion to premise. Though not put behind the bars, they were directed to sign a bond to the effect that they had no complaint against the government ~ an order that “we refused” to comply with, to quote Dreze. “The meetings organised by various village self-help groups and other voluntary bodies play a crucial role in ensuring food security for Jharkhand’s poor.” In reality, they have to contend with food insecurity.
It was only to be expected that the detention would be greeted with widespread outrage across the country. And so it has been on Thursday. Not the least because Dreze had been in the vanguard of the struggle against hunger, and Jharkhand ~ on the cusp of relentless privation ~ bears witness to several starvation deaths in recent years. Not for Dreze to articulate electoral rhetoric on one of life’s essentials; that must be the prerogative of the political class.
The establishment ought to have realised that the meeting was organised with a noble objective, specifically to help the poor to gain access to subsidised food supplied by the government. More than a decade after the Right to Food was put in place, it is hard not to wonder if the BPL category in Jharkhand has been wholly covered by what has been trumpeted as a piece of flagship legislation. The administration in Ranchi has brought the noble efforts of Dreze to an ignoble end arguably to forestall still more ignoble strife before the first vote is cast. The space for an economist’s evaluation of an issue as close to the bone as food security has now shrunk fair and square. And the space has shrunk even to discuss matters of public welfare. The food insecurity in Jharkhand precludes a forthright discourse, to which the administration is not agreeable.