India File

The right to eat

Poornima Joshi | Updated on March 10, 2018 Published on April 24, 2017

In protest A sit-in against the move to ban beef

The impulse to control choices has rarely worked in India

The Centre’s proposal to fix sizes of portions served by star hotels and restaurants stirred the classical debate about the implications of State limiting individual choice.

“Every institution of the Indian State suffers from an inability to recognise its boundaries – from Parliament and judiciary to even institutions like the censor board,” says political activist Yogendra Yadav.

The thumb rule in functional democracies has been that the State interventions in individual behaviour should be limited only to matters that concern the greater majority. Even then, it is not always easy to ascertain how much of an individual’s private decision impact the collective good.

Historically, the impulse to control individual behaviour has rarely had positive results in India.

The erudite Karan Singh, India’s Health Minister in 1975, could hardly have been ignorant of John Stuart Mill’s famous distinction between “the part of a person’s life which concerns only himself and that which concerns others”. Still, just a year after he had declared that “development is the only contraceptive”, the scion of the Kashmir Royal family presided over the darkest chapter in India’s family planning programme.

Over 12 months, the Government carried out more than eight million sterilisations. Botched operations resulted in 1,774 death. The negativity surrounding forced sterilisations totally discredited the national family planning programme.

From eight million during 1976-1977, less than a million sterilisations were conducted during 1977-78, and there was overall distrust even for reversible family planning methods such as oral pills.

Against Mill’s thesis on Liberty, there are factors such as individual interdependence and concern for others that have framed policy discourse across the world. The bans on public smoking, laws against drunk driving are instances of the State curbing individual choice for the greater common good. But a prerequisite for practising the politics of public behaviour is for the State to do more towards informing citizens towards the larger cost of private decisions, empowering them to make informed choices.

It’s is extremely dangerous for policy to be guided by moral impulses seeped in ideology, says sociologist Satish Deshpande. “Bad faith is not a good place to start framing policy that guides personal and social behaviour,” he says.

Enforcing a ban may convey a sense of moral authority and decisiveness but is rarely effective.

Published on April 24, 2017
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