Kiran Bedi’s ‘no toilets, no free rice’ order was shockingly insensitive

Madhuri Danthala
Madhuri DanthalaApr 29, 2018 | 14:09

Kiran Bedi’s ‘no toilets, no free rice’ order was shockingly insensitive

We cannot be insensitive to the plight of those who live in penury.

As a child, like most girls in my school, I held Dr Kiran Bedi in high esteem. For many of us girls from small town India, she was the epitome of women’s emancipation.

However, since she has entered political life, she has lost much of her sheen. Of course, we still respect her for her achievements, but she’s not someone I look up to anymore. I was appalled to learn from a friend (he too is an ex-admirer of Dr. Bedi) that, as the Lt. Governor of Puducherry, she had ordered that the free rice scheme be implemented only if the local MLAs and Panchayat Commissioners certify that the villages are open defecation free (ODF) and garbage free.



She subsequently withdrew the order after drawing a lot of flak, and clarified that her intention wasn’t to deny poor people of their entitlement.

However noble one’s intentions may be, we cannot be insensitive to the plight of those who live in penury. Setting them free from the squalor they are confined to requires a compassionate approach, and the state, as well as the better-off citizens, ought to display utmost sensitivity to the most vulnerable sections of society.

This insensitivity of treating poor people as a burden on society is quite deep among the well to do. Bedi’s order brings into focus the debate around rice schemes, which are criticised by middle and upper classes as election gimmicks. The southern states are often mocked for the subsidised schemes that dominate electoral discourse.

Very often, it is argued in middle class circles that “doles” such as free rice programmes or highly subsidised food are a bane on India’s economy. It is also suggested that such schemes make people “lazy” and they are exploited by political parties for their votes. In fact, when the National Food Security Act was being implemented in 2013, many people said it would be a burden on the exchequer.


BJP MP Pratap Simha (then a columnist with Kannada Prabha) had castigated the newly formed Siddaramaiah government for implementing the Anna Bhagya scheme before the Food Security Act came into force. In an article he penned on July 13, 2013, he claimed that such schemes drain out the state’s coffers and encourage laziness.

However, people who believe that such schemes make the poor lazy are oblivious to ground realities. It is often said that being poor results in more expenses. When people don’t have access to nutritious food, they tend to fall sick more often, and hence their medical expenses rise. Any government that seeks equitable and social justice will therefore provide them with access to subsidised food.


Only those who are oblivious to the plight of the poor will argue that such schemes encourage laziness. Further, those who claim that subsidising the food of the poor is a drain on the exchequer conveniently ignore the many “incentives” given to the corporates and large companies.

The “incentives” essentially are subsidies. Yet not many criticise the fact that the corporates receive a lot more “incentives” than what governments spend on subsidies. It is argued that large companies create jobs and hence add value to the economy. Again, it is conveniently ignored that a healthy population is a prerequisite for economic development, and hence any cost incurred should be seen as an investment rather than wastage.


Cleanliness and hygiene obviously are important. In fact, they too add to solving the larger problem and ensure a healthy population. But the responsibility for ensuring that should be pinned on the authorities. The poor should not be penalised for what is essentially lack of civic sense, which all sections of the society are guilty of.

Despite having large ecological footprints, the middle classes often indulge in mocking the poor. It is this contempt for the poor that makes us such an insensitive society. We must fight poverty, not the poor.


Last updated: April 30, 2018 | 14:37
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