By Kancha Ilaiah
Jul 19, 2013
Several political parties are shamelessly attacking Sonia Gandhi for formalising Food Security law as an ordinance. No Congress politician or non-Congress politician thought of such a law all these years.
Sonia Gandhi is one of the four foreign-born Indian women who have left a deep imprint on Indian history. Annie Besant was the first such woman who became the president of the Indian National Congress in 1917. Though she is better known as a theosophist, she was a Fabian socialist and an equal rights campaigner.
Another major foreign-born figure to influence our socio-spiritual life was Mother Teresa. Albanian by birth, she is the only foreign-born person to have been bestowed the country’s highest civilian award, the Bharat Ratna.
Less well known is Gail Omvedt. A remarkable scholar, she made India hers by marriage and adoption, like Sonia Gandhi, and has written several transformative texts that will influence Indian scholarship for a long time to come. An American with Marxist leanings, she became a strong Ambedkarite.
Sonia Gandhi, an Italian by birth but Indian by choice, will perhaps be remembered the most. During her 10-year rule — a de jure rule at that — she has changed the course of the Indian welfare state. Through four legal measures — the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA), the Right to Information Act (RTI), the Right to Education Act (RTE) and, finally, the masterstroke, the Food Security Ordinance (FSO) — Indian democracy has become seriously transformative.
In the field of education, the project to establish 6,000 model schools was a silent move put in place at her initiative. At a time when state-run regional language educational institutions were becoming more and more irrelevant, in its second term the United Progressive Alliance decided to establish 6,000 model schools with world-class facilities in every backward Samithi/Mandal. Though the medium of instruction in these schools will be decided in consultation with each state government, the Andhra Pradesh government has already started several such school and they are English medium.
This was my strong plea as a member of the Round Table constituted by the human resource development ministry for working out the framework of these model schools. Unless they are in English medium they will not serve the expected purpose. These schools will have to implement the reservation system without any compromise and see to it that an English-educated class emerges in remote villages from among the scheduled castes/tribes and other backward castes. This programme, if effectively used by the states, is going to play a critical role in transforming education.
MGNREGA, during a difficult time — the global financial crisis and high level of rural unemployment in India — has helped the village folk sustain themselves with an assured wage that goes straight into their bank accounts. This has had multiple effects on the villagers’ mass psyche. For the first time in memory, villagers are getting wages without any humiliating engagement with landlords or the rural rich.
Second, they now have a relationship with India’s banking system. The banking system too has had to expand to reach the huge number of account holders in the rural setting. As one travels in rural areas, one can see the impact of this programme on the health of the rural poor. They look better fed and better dressed than they did five years ago. People tell stories about their increased food intake. The negative impact is, of course, on men’s drinking levels. But that cannot be held against the scheme.
The Right to Information Act has exposed innumerable corrupt practices. No other politician at the helm of affairs, coming from India, would have dared to put an act like this in place. For an average Indian politician, corruption is routine and systemic. To Sonia Gandhi, it must have appeared very abnormal.
Every child’s right to education was never considered to be an urgent matter by Indian politicians. By putting the Right to Education Act in place, the UPA has kindled new hope among those who could never think of being able to afford decent education for their children.
Most important of all is the Right to Food Ordinance. For the average Indian politician, the productive masses going to bed starving while they themselves went to bed on a full stomach generated no shame or guilt. It is the Indian ethos of caste and untouchability that allows rich Indians to feed themselves on the hunger of others.
The starving masses of India had to wait for a foreign-born woman to give them a legal assurance that basic food supply was their right.
Several political parties — particularly the main Opposition party, the Bharatiya Janata Party — are shamelessly attacking Sonia Gandhi for formalising this law as an ordinance. No Congress politician or non-Congress politician who is part of the ruling elite thought of such a law all these years.
When somebody whom they attack as a foreigner — and a woman at that — works tirelessly to bring about a law to abolish hunger from this country, they feel that something they loved and lived with has been taken away. The Indian rich are not merely exploiters but vulgar vultures who do not want the food producers to eat food at all.
Whether the party that she heads comes to power in 2014 or not, these admirable measures will remain in the log book of Indian history. Whether our pundits write about the greatness of these measures or not, the poor masses who now sleep with full bellies will remember, generation after generation, that one woman (not a man) called Sonia Gandhi recognised their role in food production.
If tomorrow Narendra Modi becomes Prime Minister, can one expect him to have this kind of love for the poor? So far we have never seen him sympathising with the poor.
Kancha Ilaiah is director, Centre for the Study of Social Exclusion and Inclusive Policy, Maulana Azad National Urdu University, Hyderabad