Right to Food
Four months have passed since the National Advisory Council began work on the proposed National Food Security Act. Many NAC members have a strong commitment to this issue and worked hard to frame the Council’s food security proposals. Unfortunately, the NAC seems to be expected to work within constraints imposed by the government that do not leave scope for anything like what is required to address the problem of hunger and undernutrition in an effective manner. The final NFSA proposals are very disappointing and, on this matter, the NAC has failed in its basic purpose of imparting a new vision to social policy in India.
The NAC began its deliberations on a visionary note but later came under a lot of pressure to accommodate constraints imposed by the government. The final result is a minimalist proposal that misses many important elements of food security.
The PDS framework is very fragmented and fails to abolish the artificial and divisive distinction between APL and BPL households. It takes on board food procurement limits that reflect the government’s reluctance to expand the PDS more than objective constraints.
The non-PDS entitlements, for their part, have been diluted beyond recognition. Entire fields of intervention that are crucial for food security (such as child development services and old age pensions) have been left out of the final proposals.
An opportunity has been missed to initiate a radical departure in this field. The NAC proposals are a great victory for the government – they allow it to appear to be doing something radical for food security, but it is actually “more of the same”.
Promise of the United Progressive Alliance-II
• Seeing the popularity of the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS), which helped the Congress to win the 2009 parliamentary elections, the newly constituted Government has thought of mentioning the Food Security Act within the first 100 days of its stay in the office for the second time.
• President Pratibha Patil on June 4, 2009 said that a National Food Security Act would be formulated whereby each below poverty line (BPL) family would be entitled by law to get 25 kg of rice or wheat per month at Rs 3/- per kg, a promise made by the Congress before general elections 2009. Many would agree that the proposal for a Food Security Bill has come at the right point of time when the world has already witnessed food crisis in 2008 that pushed millions of people to the brink of poverty and undernutrition.
• A concept note on the National Food Security Act was made available on 4 June, 2009 by the Ministry of Consumer Affairs, Food and Public Distribution. The concept note on National Food Security Act promises to ensure food security (by supplying a certain minimum quality of rice, wheat and coarse cereals) to the below poverty line (BPL) population residing in rural and urban areas. The number of BPL households would be fixed by the Central Government based on the recent poverty estimates of the Planning Commission (presently of 2004-05). As against the accepted number of 6.52 crore BPL cards, there exists 10.68 crore BPL cards by end of March, 2009. The above poverty line (APL) population will be excluded from the targeted public distribution system (TPDS) under the new Food Security Act. Based on the recent poverty estimates (2004-05) by Planning Commission, the number of BPL households will come down from 6.52 crore to 5.91 crore and the number of APL households will increase from 11.52 crore to 15.84 crore. Only 25 kg of foodgrains to each BPL household would be supplied at subsidized rates under the new law. The validity of the new BPL ration cards issued, based on the recent poverty estimates of the Planning Commission (2004-05), would be for 5 years, after which they will automatically expire. Multiplicity of food schemes would be abandoned under the new law, which means discontinuation of a number of food and nutrition related schemes. Presently the Government provides 277 lakh tonnes of foodgrains for below poverty line (BPL) and Antodaya Anna Yojana (AAY) categories, with a subsidy amounting to Rs. 37,000 crore. Under the new Act, the government would provide 251 lakh tons of foodgrains for BPL and AAY categories, with subsidy amounting to Rs. 40,380 crore (if 25 kg of rice or wheat per month is supplied to each BPL household at Rs 3/- a kg). Computerisation of TPDS would take place along with setting up of village grain banks and food security tribunals, according to the concept note.
• The Budget Speech delivered by Minister of Finance Shri Pranab Mukherjee on 6 July, 2009 which stated that the United Progressive Alliance government was preparing a National Food Security Bill, confirmed that the Congress Party will deliver on its election promise of providing 25 kg of foodgrains per month, at Rs 3/- per kg, to every poor family
• A Group of Ministers was formed on 13 July, 2009 to examine the proposed National Food Security Act. The members of the group are: Pranab Mukherjee, Sharad Pawar, AK Anthony, P Chidambaram, Mamata Banerji, Dayanidhi Maran, Anand Sharma and CP Joshi (Dr. Montek Singh Ahluwalia, Planning Commission, is a special invitee)
• The Right to Food Act, which has been prepared by a team comprising of Prof. Jean Dreze, Harsh Mander, Biraj Patnaik, Reetika Khera and Dipa Sinha and was released on 24 June, 2009 proposes to consolidate, in law, entitlements that are currently in place through eight food and nutrition-related schemes. Most of these entitlements are already justifiable, based on Supreme Court orders in the “Right to Food” case, according to the authors of the proposed Act
• Below Poverty Line (BPL) households: All BPL households shall be entitled to 35 kg of foodgrain each month, at Rs 3/kg for rice and Rs 2/kg for wheat under the Public Distribution System. Each nuclear family shall be treated as a separate household. A new methodology for the BPL Census is being proposed, based on simple, transparent and verifiable criteria. For instance, in rural areas any household that meets any two simple inclusion criteria (such as landlessness and being SC/ST) shall be entitled to a BPL Card. Households meeting any of six “exclusion criteria” will not be entitled to BPL cards. Extensive transparency safeguards will also be introduced in the Public Distribution System (PDS)
• The proposed Act demands for continuation of existing food related schemes such as: Integrated Child Development Services, Mid-Day Meal Scheme, Public Distribution System, Antyodaya, National Maternity Benefit Scheme/ Janani Suraksha Yojana, National Social Assistance Programme, including Indira Gandhi National Old Age Pension Scheme, Indira Gandhi National Widow Pension Scheme and Indira Gandhi National Disability Pension Scheme, National Family Benefit Scheme, and Rajiv Gandhi National Crèche Scheme. All the provisions in various such schemes have been elaborately discussed in the proposed Act
• The proposed Act has asked for severe penalties against individuals and organizations/ companies who are held responsible for violation of food safety norms and standards that affects the public. It has demanded severe punishment to those who push for baby food instead of breast milk
• The draft Right to Food Act has safeguards against encroachments by corporate lobbies and private contractors in food and nutrition related schemes
Demands for food entitlements by the civil society (released on 22 July, 2009)
• The Act must place an obligation on the government to encourage food production through sustainable and equitable means, and ensure adequate food availability in all locations at all times.
• The Act must incorporate and consolidate all entitlements currently existing under Supreme Court orders (Annexure 1) and existing schemes, especially:
• The Act must also create new entitlements for those who are excluded from existing schemes, including out-of-school children, the elderly and the infirm in need of daily care, migrant workers and their families, bonded labour families, the homeless, and the urban poor.
• The Act must not abridge but only expand other entitlements such as old age pensions, maternity entitlements and work entitlements under NREGA.
• The right to food of children in the age group of 0-6 month’s must be ensured through services to the mother, including support at birth; skilled counselling especially to promote breast feeding; maternity entitlements; and crèche facilities at the work place.
• The Act must create an obligation for governments to prevent and address chronic starvation, and reach food pro-actively to persons threatened with starvation.
• The Act must create provisions for governments to deal adequately with natural and human-made disasters and internal displacement, including by doubling all food entitlements for a period of at least one year in affected areas; and removing upper limits to person days of employment in NREGA.
• All residents of the country, excepting possible for categories specially excluded because of their wealth, must be covered by the Public Distribution System, with at least 35 kgs of cereals per household (or 7 kgs per person) per month at Rs. 3/kg for rice and Rs. 2/kg for wheat. Coarse grains should be made available through the PDS at subsidised rates, wherever people prefer these. In addition, extra provisions of subsidised oil and pulses should be made.
• Women must be regarded as head of the household for all food-related matters such as the distribution of ration cards.
• The Act must seek to eliminate all social discrimination in food-related matters, including discrimination against Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes, Most Backward Classes and minorities.
• Cash transfers must not replace food transfers under any nutrition-related scheme.
• The Act must include safeguards against the invasion of corporate interests and private contractors in food policy and nutrition-related schemes, especially where they affect food safety and child nutrition. In particular no GM food and hazardous or useless additives must be allowed in public nutrition programmes. Governments must not enter into any partnerships with the private sector where there is a conflict of interests.
• The Act must include strong, in-built independent institutions for accountability along with time-bound, grievance redressal provisions (including provisions for criminal prosecution), mandatory penalties for any violation of the Act and compensation for those whose entitlements have been denied. In particular, the Gram Sabha must have effective powers for grievance redressal and monitoring of food-related schemes.
• All programmes of food entitlements must have strong in-built transparency mechanisms, and mandatory requirements of social audit.
• Within the existing PDS system, the Act must provide for mandatory reforms such as de-privatisation of PDS shops, preferably to women’s groups, with sufficient capital and commissions for new owners; direct door step delivery of food items to the PDS shop; and computerisation, along with other measures for transparency.
• The Act must specify that no laws or policy shall be passed that adversely impact the enabling environment for the right to food.
Apprehensions about the new National Food Security Act (draft)
• If made into a law, the draft Food Security Bill (Government version) would reduce the allocation for a below poverty line (BPL) household (e.g. in the case of Antodaya Anna Yojana) from 35 kg of rice/ wheat per month to 25 kg of rice/ wheat per month. This would appear contradictory to many who expected the Bill to be a benign effort of the UPA-II to ensure food security.
• Instead of better implementation of the already existing schemes such as the Targeted Public Distribution System (TPDS), Antodaya Anna Yojana (AAY), Integrated Child Development Scheme (ICDS), Mid Day Meal Scheme (MDMS) etc., the Food Security law might make things unduly worse and unnecessarily complicated. A question here would be: Is the Food Security Bill going to replace all such food related schemes that existed before its enactment?
• If the Bill is about ensuring food security, how can it leave those who may not fall below the poverty line but are already exposed to food insecurity? The Rome Declaration (1996) made during the World Food Summit states that ‘food security is achieved when all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs and food preferences for an active life’. Food security is about nutrition security too. If that is the case, the Food Security Bill has to rethink about the quality of foodgrains supplied and distributed. The Food Security Bill must also aim at providing fortified foodgrains along with edible oils, salt and essential spices. A balanced diet would ensure both food and nutrition security. The basket of commodities, which would be available to the consumers, should reflect local tastes and preferences and must include locally grown cereals and legumes.
• If targeting of BPL households is done under the Food Security Bill, then that would lead to inclusion (including the non-poor) and exclusion (excluding the poor) errors. It would be wiser to go for universalization (rather than targeting) as was recommended by the Committee on Long Term Grain Policy under the chairmanship of Prof. Abhijit Sen (2000-02).
• Is India ready to rely exclusively upon biotechnology and genetic engineering for increasing its agricultural production so as to ensure food security for all? Much of debates have already taken place on the usefulness and pitfalls of GMOs.
• The World Development Report 2008-Agriculture for Development, which has been brought out by the World Bank mentions that India presently faces the problem of depleting ground water level that makes agriculture unsustainable and poses risk to environment. If rice is one of the foodgrains that is going to be supplied when the Food Security Act comes into being, then more and more farmers would go for cultivation of rice by looking at the price incentives offered by the Government. In the Punjab region, overexploitation of groundwater takes place thanks to the huge subsidies given on electricity. Moreover, minimum support prices (MSP) for rice increase the financial attractiveness of rice relative to less water-intensive crops, which makes depletion of ground water table more obvious.
• There are apprehensions that sustainability of Food Security law would be at peril if India faces lower agricultural production due to poor harvest, drought etc. in the future. Is India ready to rely upon food imports and food aid to ensure right to food at all cost? At present, the country has been facing shortage in south-west monsoon rainfall that might affect agricultural production and prices of commodities.