India Embraces the Welfare State

NEW DELHI – In recent weeks, India’s parliament, often justifiably derided for the frequent disruptions that mar its work, has surprised its detractors by passing two crucial pieces of legislation that could transform the lives of hundreds of millions of people.

The first, the Food Security Act, grants 67% of India’s population a right to 35 kilograms of rice or wheat for three rupees (less than five US cents) per kilo. Together with related provisions that would provide meals to infants and expectant mothers, and subsidized pulses to supplement cheaply available food grains, the law will add $6 billion to India’s annual fiscal deficit. But it would also abolish the risk of starvation and malnutrition in a land where too many have gone hungry for too long.

The second law assures fair – indeed generous – compensation to people, often small-scale farmers, whose land is acquired by the state for development purposes. In a country where two-thirds of the population is still dependent on agriculture and small holdings are all that a majority of Indians live on, the new law helps those who have often felt exploited and deprived of their livelihoods by the state’s power of eminent domain.

The new law requires the consent of 80% of a major tract’s landowners before the state can acquire it, and includes exacting provisions for the rehabilitation and resettlement of those affected. It will even compensate tenant farmers for their loss of livelihoods and require that those displaced by land acquisition be offered employment in the institutions that displace them.