The Parable of dead bodies: Looking at the Food Security Bill

The Parable

Anand Philip on the parable of dead bodies and the food security act
By Great Beyond

When the villagers of Utopia woke up that morning, they found that the current had washed up a dozen or so dead bodies on their river bank. The people quickly got to action, as was normal for Utopians. Frogmen helped by the fire department dragged the bodies ashore, the mayor decided they would be cremated outside the city, the Doctor examined them and concluded that they died of nothing contagious and the priest performed their last rites.

Unfortunately, it was not to be a one time event. The next morning, and then the morning after that and in the mornings after that morning, the barrage of bodies continued. While the frogmen and priests and other workers pitched to get the bodies out and disposed, the city council gathered to ponder upon the matters.

After much philosophizing about what the dead bodies stood for, who they were, whose fault it was and which department should handle them, it was unanimously agreed that the poor souls deserved dignity. The council wrote to the king, known for his big heart, consulted his circle of elders and granted them a nearby wasteland to create a crematorium for the dead, and a fat purse for funding.

Soon it was noticed that picking up bodies in the morning was creating traffic jams and so the mayor decided to launch a technologically advanced boat patrol that would scour the river as it entered their territory and pick up the bodies as they arrived.

The boat workers then started settling near the river, as it was easier for them to go home that way, and with the increased traffic of the boats, the river port could no longer be used for fishing and other usual purposes. The mayor therefore sanctioned that building of a new port, a bit upstream from where the bodies were being found.

As time went by, new problems would arise but Utopians fixed them all as they had done so far. For his astute handling of the situation, and creation of hundreds of new jobs as boats men, crematorium workers, traffic wardens, and what not, the mayor was re elected. For the hard work, solidarity and greatness of heart of the people of Utopia, their King granted them the status of a City and they lived happily ever after.

Problem: Hunger and Malnutrition

India, hunger, free food, malnutrition
by juicyrai

Depending on which source fits you best, anywhere from 28%1 to 80%2 of Indians live in poverty. The real figures are vigorously debated, and the National Advisory Council [NAC] has taken a value of 836 million- 77% of the Indian population as living with food insecurity- a figure they use interchangeably with the number of poor. These numbers fly in the face of common sense and other reliable studies but it clear that a large segment of the population- between 373 and 50% suffers from chronic malnutrition4. And a smaller – around 5% suffers from day-to-day hunger.

Deaths from acute malnutrition are declining rapidly as are the cases of acutely malnourished children. It is possible today for a medical student in a government hospital to pass out without ever seeing a single case of acute severe malnutrition. But chronic malnutrition remains a serious issue and the contributing factors are recurrent disease, chronic poverty5, lack of nutrients in food, lack of access to protein/vitamin rich sources, and peri-natal conditions like maternal nutrition, birth weight and breastfeeding and weaning practices.

Root causes:

  • Poverty
  • Lack of sanitation, access to clean water,
  • Bad farming practices and lack of agricultural reforms,
  • Corruption,
  • Persistence of historic marginalization.
  • Unemployment and wage exploitation in the unorganized labor sector.
  • Unexplained nutritional factors

What has been done:

  • — Integrated Child Development Service (ICDS).
  • — Kishori Shakti Yojna
  • — Nutrition Programme for Adoloscent Girls.
  • — Rajiv Gandhi Scheme for Empowerment of Adolescent Girls
  • — Mid-day Meal programme for schools
  • — Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan
  • — National Rural Health Mission
  • — National Urban Health Mission
  • — Rashtriya Krishi Vikas Yojna
  • — National Food Security Mission
  • — National Horticultural Mission
  • — Rajiv Gandhi Drinking Water Mission
  • — Total Sanitation Campaign
  • — Swarna Jayanthi Gram Rozgar Yojna
  • — Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Programme
  • — Targeted Public Distribution System
  • — Antyodaya Anna Yojna
  • — Annapoorna 6

[Note: This impressive list of interventions is a partial list only, there are other state specific and lapsed programs that are not included.]

Of these programs, the ones that have had the most money and effort put into them are those that have some form of subsidized distribution of food, medicines, or un-sustainable job creation.

Study after study has shown that at best the areas that need these the most, have a success rate of under 50% and at worst, almost no benefit has reached the intended targets7. Not just that, there is pilfering and hoarding, reselling to commercial markets and BPL cards and lists miss 50% of deserving an often include those APL.

What does this bill do?

  • Increase spending on food grain
  • increase allocation of Grain per family
  • Adds on bureaucratic processes with no accountability in the form of redress forums
  • Tries to make PDS leak proof, but retains structure and form almost entirely and allocates little for infrastructure.

The key fact being is none of this actually increases food security- only feeds those in hunger, if the food reaches them. These are inherently stop-gap measures, but with the lack of permanent solutions, this leaky PDS pot has persisted 60 years into independence.


  1. There are no bills in the parliament at present‭ ‬ address to resolve the root issues,‭ neither is the NAC doing anything at infrastructure or system level to address the root issues.
  2. The bill Ignores studies that show that the caloric intake of the poorest in India has reduced in-spite of increase in income. It 8equates hunger with poverty and malnutrition, though nowhere does it actually mention malnutrition. ‬The problem might not lie in access to food at all,‭ ‬but in quality of food,‭ ‬work levels,‭ ‬and other factors. which are not addressed at all.9
  3. Disregards the further strain it is going to place on farmers, who are already getting poor returns for their investments. 10

Surprisingly, some of the people who have shown these problems with the bill are on the NAC and are considered very influential.

The NAC, which is pushing the bill, seems to believe that if you pour water into a bucket with no bottom, as long as you keep pouring, you are doing the right thing.

Pouring money into a bucket with a hole
by Coltera

Back to the Parable.

‎Something struck you as odd didn’t it? Why did no one try find out where the dead bodies were coming from? Why did they not try stop the flow of the cadavers altogether? What use is it mopping up the blood if you do nothing to stop the bleeding?

This obvious logic has surprisingly eluded much of our policy makers and politicians, who continue to fish bodies out from the river, and make enemies of those who can help stop the killing.


Foot Notes

1Planning commission press release for poverty estimates 2005
5Chronic Poverty in India: Incidence, Causes and Policies AASHA KAPUR MEHTA World Development Vol. 31, No. 3, pp. 491–511, 2003
8Food and Nutrition in India: Facts and Interpretations” (EPW, 14. February 2009), Angus Deaton and Jean Dreze

10 thoughts on “The Parable of dead bodies: Looking at the Food Security Bill”

  1. Great post once again, Anand. Loved the way you started with that parable. What struck me first was why you used the term parable rather rhan story. Searching wikipedia brought me to the parable of cave by plato. Ultimate reality may be different from seeing shadows on the cave wall. But understandong ultimate reality may not solve the problems for those in the cave.

  2. This turned out to be an excellent analysis of the problem. In fact, this kind of illustrated posts help the readers to grasp the problem immediately. Now if you can follow it up with two more articles it would be great:

    1. Has this money been used on solving the problem, how much would it have solved.

    2. How to better solve the problem.

    Dr. Johnson C. Philip
    Principal and Liaison for International Students

    1. Dr. JCP my follow up posts will be examining some other similar schemes and am at present reading/asking extensively about how to solve these issues. I would love to provide alternate stats about money usage, but my math/econ skills are not sufficient, however, tis a great idea will will see if i can get someone else to work on that.

  3. Hey Anand, Great post. Loved the parable and am impressed with the research that has gone into the post. I note a drop of pessimism here….. Rather make that a bucket! I sometimes get into that mode myself. But generally I don’t break my head about the failures of the government or the system. If I was an Utopian, I would have collected a few friends and mad an expedition upstream to see what was happening. It’s a simplistic answer, but the only way to prevent pessimism I guess. Do whatever is in your power and trust God to take care of the rest in His own time. But all in all, a great post – hope you don’t mind me re-posting. God Bless

    1. Arpit! i know going after the bodies is exactly what you would have done 🙂 i’ve seen you do that during internship. The tone is not pessimistic, it is (supposed to be) cautious and analytical. IN my follow ups i will be exploring what can be done and how we can be involved.

  4. First, an excellent post Anand. Really enjoyed it. Would like to say something here. There had been some attempts to what you termed as stop the dead bodies or stem the bleeding in the way of rural employment guarantee schemes aimed at providing income to maintain a sustainable livelihood to the underdeveloped country population. Jawahar Rojgar Yojna, Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act etc.

    However, all those schemes failed and are failing because of the mandatory vested political interests behind those schemes and rampant corruption. Now, we see a growing opposition to NREGA because of rising suspicions that it is actually the present UPA government’s design for votebank politics where it is taking help of Christian evangelists active in India’s remote regions and at times even encouraging them in conversion missions to expand the votebank. Ditto with Muslim majority parts of India where such schemes are used as political appeasement tools. It is never the nation’s collective decision that such schemes are in place. It is always a political party or a political coalition’s decision. It is always for political mileage.

    In a country where there is so much mistrust, so much corruption, so much nefarious scheming, it is nothing but a miracle that the country is still running. Failures of poverty and hunger alleviation schemes are thus inevitable.

    Therefore, as you mentioned, the bottomless bucket will continue to be filled whether or not it helps. Because, as you rightly said, it would look as the right thing being done from the surface level.

    1. Thank you Jayanta for the reply- wish i was as quick on commenting on your posts 🙂

      1. I dont think MNREGA really is about fixing the problem, 100 days of employment, granted without any competition, not leading to any skill building, with a less than 40% implementation is hardly what ca fix the problem, even with a 100% implementation. I will be covering this scheme in detail in my next post.

      2. Money does not convert people, so using Nrega funds for conversion seems suspect. in all likelyhood, it goes to those dubious characters among christian “social servants” who would use the money for assured political support.

      3. the level of tolerance for anarchy, corruption and misdeeds done to them is high in the india populace. we are a wise and slow people, we see the need for a govt. even if corrupt bec the alternate is utter chaos. but i am confident that things are changing and the the india of the next 50 years is going to be much different in freedom, transparency and human rights.

      thanks again!

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