Responding to Malthusian theories about population growth, the Victorian writer Thomas Carlyle coined the term ‘the dismal science’ to denote the newly emerging discipline of economists. It’s a different matter, of course, that Carlyle himself thought that slavery was morally superior to the laws of demand and supply. The term has long since gained currency with those who have always been uncomfortable with the certainties and certitudes of many economic models, a lot of whose assumptions came crashing down in the economic crisis.

The Prime Minister is also an economist and the term ‘dismal science’ came back to mind on reading his prognosis on the Supreme Court’s directions for providing free food grains as a short term measure, instead of letting them rot. There are two things in his refusal here.

The first is the question of the boundary-line between the judiciary and the executive, and there Manmohan Singh may indeed have a limited point. But the Court was only taking about a short-term measure in the face of rotting food-grains. The real problem is that in six years, Manmohan Singh has not been able to evolve a system for food security or initiate measures for efficiency.

Common sense dictates that when you have somewhere between 37-77 per cent of your people living below the poverty line (depending on whose count you believe: the Tendulkar committee, the N C Saxena committee or the Arjun Sengupta report) you cannot have the spectacle of 55 million tonnes of foodgrains rotting away to waste every year. Does it take a court order to even take notice of the disaster that our food-grain management has become?

Going by his reported comments in an interaction with senior journalists last week, the Prime Minister has chosen to take refuge in his larger vision that India will not progress until it industrialises and people are taken out of agriculture. It’s a debatable proposition, at best, but what is not debatable is that the Prime Minister presides over a regime where he has allowed the Ministry of Agriculture under Sharad Pawar to turn into a bumbling mess.

The contingencies of coalition politics mean that Pawar has been untouchable so far but even he is on record as saying that he needs ‘helping hands’. At a time when the agrarian crisis is still continuing, this is one Ministry that should have had top priority for the best minds in the government; instead it has been allowed to meander into aimlessness and the food security bill is stuck in endless debates about semantics.

This is when the World Food Programme estimates that one-fourth of the world’s hungry are in India. We languish at a poor 65th on the Global Hunger Index, calculated by the International Food Policy Research Institute. That is worse than Zimbabwe, Uganda or Mali. Later this month, world leaders will meet at the UN Millennium Development summit to take stock of progress on goals like halving malnutrition, which are to be met by 2015. According to one estimate, India will not meet this particular goal before 2043, by current rates.

The government’s response to the Supreme Court has been to release an additional 2.5 million tonnes of rice and wheat for distribution to the poor under the Targeted Public Distribution System. Yet, one gets the sense that we have seen more urgency from the PMO on the Commonwealth Games this year than we have seen on the issue of food.

If free mobile phones can be distributed to BPL families as a poverty alleviation measure in at least one district this week, why can’t free or affordable food-grains be distributed in certain others? The Prime Minister says there is no money. Yet, a great deal is actually spent on disposing of rotten foodgrains.

As P Sainath has pointed out, there is enough money to solve the larger problem of distribution for the poor. The question is, is there a will?

The ‘dismal science’ should not be blamed for dismal politics.