By Anushka Sachdev, National Law University, Delhi
“Editor’s Note:In the wake of an overhaul of the Indian Political Scenario, a headlong passing of the Food Security Act, 2013 by the UPA government fell in much controversy. The Act was criticized for not fixing parameters to decide the beneficiaries and the method of availing the benefit. With 56.2% women and 24.3% men being anaemic, it is difficult to decide how far this act will take the health considerations of Indian population. This paper delves deeper into the shortcomings of the Act and emphasizes the need for proper legislation on the subject.“
The national food security bill was enacted on September 12, 2013. It is[i] “an Act to provide for food and nutritional security in human life cycle approach, by ensuring access to adequate quantity of quality food at affordable prices to people to live a life with dignity and for matters connected therewith or incidental thereto.”
It aims at protecting all children, women and men in India from hunger and food deprivation. Many social, economic and political reasons have instigated its enactment. The objectives of this Act also include setting new standards of delivery, transparency and accountability for social programs. It also aims to provide a guarantee of adequate nutrition which is derived from the right to food as a part of the right to life under Article 21 (interpreted by the Supreme Court as a right to life with dignity)[ii], which is a fundamental right of all citizens.
Recently in Ami Prabal vs.Union of India and Others[iii] the Madhya Pradesh High Court held that if there is an obligation upon State for allotment of food grains, state should follow that order to secure food to citizens. As per the order of Supreme Court, families holding BPL & APL cards were entitled to receive food grains of 35 kg per month. However, BPL & APL card holders of state were getting only 20 kg per month as the number of card holders under Union of India was different from that of state of Madhya Pradesh which implied that real BPL families were not getting benefit as ordered by Supreme Court. Therefore, shortage of food was not to be blamed for the hunger-stricken strata but the lax attitude of the administration adopted for the identification of BPL & APL families. Moreover, food grains could also be saved from wastage due to inadequate storage capacity. Given that right to food is a basic human right and is also a sub set of right to life, the Court issued direction to the respondents for removal of anomaly of number of BPL & APL card holders in State while disposing the petition. This case forms one of the major instances which led the government to enact a legislation to cater to the right to food.
The act focuses on legal food entitlements i.e. the duty of central, state and local governments to provide food to the people, through subsidized grain, direct feeding programs and related interventions. According to the act –“Every person belonging to priority households shall be entitled to receive five kilograms of food grains per person per month at subsidized prices specified in Schedule I from the State Government under the Targeted Public Distribution System.” [iv]The entitlements of the persons belonging to the eligible households at subsidized prices shall extend up to seventy-five per cent of the rural population and up to fifty per cent of the urban population.[v] The act also entails special provisions for every pregnant woman and children upto the age of 14 years.[vi]
This project determines the viability of the different provisions of National Food Security Act, 2013 by comparison and analysis of various sections.
There have been many attempts to enact a legislation to protect the Indian population from malnourishment. A PIL in 2001 exposed the excessive amounts of food grains rotting in government granaries which could have been better used to feed the starving population. Representing the People’s Union for Civil Liberties (Rajasthan), HRLN filed Public Interest Litigation in the Supreme Court in April 2001 – seeking legal enforcement of ‘Right to Food.’ [vii]According to figures of the Government of India, there are thirty-six crore people living below the poverty line and there are more than five crore people who are victims of starvation. [viii]
The Court stepped in to curb this menace in the public distribution system and issued several orders. It affirmed the right to food as inevitable and upheld Article 21 of the Constitution of India, which guarantees the fundamental right to “life with human dignity.” The Food Corporation of India was ordered to ensure that food grains do not decay and are put into proper use. The states were given the responsibility of implementation of the following schemes: the Employment Assurance Scheme, Mid-day Meal Scheme, Integrated Child Development Scheme, National Benefit Maternity Scheme for BPL pregnant women, National Old Age Pension Scheme, Annapurna Scheme, Antyodaya Anna Yojana, National Family Benefit Scheme and Public Distribution Scheme for BPL & APL families.
The petition by PUCL highlights two aspects of the state’s negligence in ensuring food security: the breakdown of the public distribution system (PDS) and the inadequacy of relief programs in drought-affected areas. Following on this, it asked the Supreme Court to intervene, by directing the government to provide subsidized food grain to all families among other directions on employment etc. The petition also requests the court to order the central government to supply free food grain for all these schemes.
This case is one of the largest among the most complex litigations. Till 2005, 382 “affidavits” were submitted by the petitioner and respondents, 55 “interim applications” were filed, and 44 “interim orders” were issued[ix]. Supreme Court has passed orders directing the Indian government to: (1) introduce cooked mid-day meals in all primary schools, (2) provide 35 kgs of grain per month at highly subsidized prices to 15 million destitute households under the Antyodaya component of the PDS, (3) double resource allocation for Sampoorna Grameen Rozgar Yojana (India’s largest rural employment programme at that time, now superseded by the Employment Guarantee Act), and (4) universalize the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS)[x]. In an interim order on November 28, 2001, the Supreme Court converted most food and employment-related schemes into “legal entitlements”. The environment created by the Right to Food Case facilitated the emergence of the NREGA. In an interim order of May 8, 2002, the SC also put in place an independent mechanism—the Commissioners of the Supreme Court—to ensure compliance of the state and central government with the orders of the court. The Commissioners submit bi-annual reports to the SC. The SC then asks the state and central governments to respond to the issues raised by the Commissioners.[xi]
Interim applications submitted from time to time by PUCL have further enlarged and consolidated these demands. The initial petition focused on the drought situation prevailing at that time, especially in Rajasthan, but the litigation now has a much broader scope. The main concern is to put in place permanent arrangements to prevent hunger and starvation thus fulfilling the concept of right to food.
The case has demonstrated that States cannot escape the responsibility of ensuring the Right to Food and it continues seeking to further strengthen the formulation and implementation of food related social security schemes. The case also forms one of the major forces behind the national food security bill. In its 2009 national election manifesto, the Congress had promised to enact a Right to Food law with the aim of guaranteeing access to sufficient food for all people. In October 2010, the National Advisory Council (NAC) drafted a National Food Security Bill, proposing legal entitlements for about 75 percent of the population. In January 2011, an Expert Committee set up by the Prime Minister under the chairmanship of Dr. C. Rangarajan examined the Bill and made several recommendations. A draft Bill was circulated by the Ministry of Food, Consumer Affairs and Public Distribution for public feedback in September 2011. The bill was originally introduced in Parliament in December 2011[xii].In May 2013 India’s government introduced an amended food security bill in the lower house of Parliament, doing away with an earlier proposal for separate categories of beneficiaries in urban and rural areas. After further amendments, deliberations and discussions in the two houses of the parliament the bill was finally enacted in September 2013.
International recognition of Right to Food
International law recognizes the human right to adequate food. The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights is the main covenant in this regard. The article 11.1 of the Covenant states that “the right of everyone to an adequate standard of living for himself and his family, including adequate food, clothing and housing, and to the continuous improvement of living conditions”, while the article 11.2 states that more immediate and urgent steps may be needed to ensure “the fundamental right to freedom from hunger and malnutrition”. The right to adequate food is important for the enjoyment of other rights. It affirms that the right to adequate food is indivisibly linked to the inherent dignity of the human person and is indispensable for the fulfilment of other human rights enshrined in the International Bill of Human Rights.[xiii]
In its General Comment 12, the Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights clarified that “the right to adequate food is realized when every man, woman and child, alone or in community with others, has physical and economic access at all times to adequate food or means for its procurement”. According to the General Comment, the realization of the right to adequate food requires:
“the availability of food in a quantity and quality sufficient to satisfy the dietary needs of individuals, free from adverse substances, and acceptable within a given culture and the accessibility of adequate food, including both economic accessibility and physical accessibility
Feasibility of the bill
The National Food Security Bill (NFSB) envisages distribution of about 61.2 million tons of cereals, primarily rice and wheat, through the existing public distribution system (PDS) and other welfare schemes (OWS), costing the exchequer about Rs. 1,25,000 crore annually which is about 1.1% of GDP. About 62 million tons of food grain will be needed under the food bill.[xiv]
Even if the grain quantity remains fixed each year, the subsidy cost will keep increasing annually because the rising input cost to the farmers will always keep the pressure to raise the minimum support price (MSP). This will increase ineffective cost of the grain to the government; the selling price at the TPDS is unlikely to change. It is also likely that because of the rising population, the food grain quantity will also increase. Therefore, given the rising costs of the scheme in coming years, its sustainability is questioned by many.[xv]
In reality, a much bigger amount is wasted annually by way of rotting food grains stocked under unsafe conditions in the godowns of the FCI. Further, significant savings from the expenditure of the FCI are possible if it rationalizes its policies.
Thus, it is wrong to say that the Food Bill will incur any extra significant expenditure by the government.
Analysis of various aspects of the bill
The Bill specifies that the central government, state governments and local authorities shall strive to progressively realize the objectives specified in Schedule III. These include, among others, access to safe and adequate drinking water and sanitation, healthcare, nutritional, health and educational support to adolescent girls, adequate pensions for senior citizens, persons with disability and single women. It is unclear why objectives that are not directly related to food security have been included in the Bill.
The Food Security Act should ideally be an opportunity for the government to show its seriousness of purpose and commitment. For that, however, it should go beyond piecemeal measures to comprehensively ensure that food is a basic human right, addressing both immediate hunger and, in the longer term, all the three aspects of availability, access and nutritional outcomes. This calls for a life-cycle approach, starting with addressing the rights of the child, continuing through to old age, adopting an inclusive approach, greater coordination between departments and ministries, making the necessary investments and budgetary allocations to ensure both adequate production and mechanisms to cope with climate change, and greater vigilance in ensuring effective distribution and utilization of allocations made. [xvi]
Since entitlements shall extend up to 75 percent of the rural and up to 50 percent of the urban population, the exact extent of the entitlements is not clear. This implies that the actual number of people entitled to food may be less than 75 percent of the rural and 50 percent of the urban population. There are two issues with regard to these entitlements. First, the Bill does not provide a rationale for prescribing specific cut-off numbers for the share of the population included in priority and general groups. Second, the minimum requirement of including 46 percent of the rural population and 28 percent of the urban population in the priority group implies that the government will have no flexibility to revise this figure even if the share of the population living in poverty changes over time.[xvii]
In some cases, where the government is unable to deliver food to the PDS system the bill allows for cash transfers. This may defeat the main agenda of the bill as the cash can be used to buy non-food items by the people.
While the Bill seeks to provide the legal right to subsidized food grain to 67 per cent of the population it creates a problem of identifying beneficiaries. It classifies the population into two categories of beneficiaries – general and priority – but is silent on how a priority household is identified. The bill has also not clearly defined terms such as social audit, childhood care etc. The Bill says that the states are to provide the records of the poor but it is unclear whether they have accurate records for this. It could lead to significant sections being excluded from the classification of beneficiaries.[xviii]
Another contentious issue is that the Bill envisages a cost sharing between the Centre and the states where the states will bear the cost for all the major schemes. These are all good provisions but they place a significant burden on the states[xix]. With regard to implementation it is unclear if the Centre can require the states to allocate funds without encroaching on the powers of state legislative assemblies. If a state does not have the funds for implementation or the state assembly chooses not to allocate, it could seriously affect the working of the Bill[xx].
But at the same time the bill envisages key proposals for improving enforcement and transparency like separation of roles between implementation and redressal with parallel seniority at the district level ; setting up of People’s Facilitation Centre (PFCs) that can help the poor register their complaints ;establishment of a high-level credible, empowered, accessible and independent appellate body at the district, state and national level to provide support, independent critical advice and expertise to the implementing departments .
The PDS mechanism insulates the beneficiaries from inflation and price volatility and ensures access to food grains even in remote areas. But at the same time it leads to large leakages and diversions of subsidized food grain. There have been complaints of sub-standard quality of food grains distributed under this mechanism and at times there is adulteration of food grain.
In cash transfer system, there is cash in the hands of poor which expands their choices and relieves financial constraints to some extent. Also cash transfer programs involve low administrative costs because it does not need procurement, storage and distribution facilities. But this scheme requires extensive banking network and may expose recipients to price volatility and inflation. Under this cash can also be used to buy non-food items.
The bill and the subsequent act was criticized by many organizations due to various reasons –
Criticism by the Right to Food Campaign
The Right to Food Campaign finds the Bill extremely inadequate in offering food entitlements, and needs serious amendments before passage. It has been consistently demanding a comprehensive food security law that promotes agriculture production, provides for local procurement and local storage along with a decentralized PDS. It also wants safeguards against commercial interference in any of the food related schemes.[xxi]
Criticism by the National Commission for the Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR) The National Commission for the Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR) has criticized the bill on grounds such as exclusion of children under the age of two years from take home ration scheme under ICDS , the denial of entitlements to the third child under the two child norm , no mention of the term malnutrition among children in the bill.[xxii]
No role for State governments in decision making
Under the National Food Security Bill, the State governments do not have the right to identify the beneficiaries, or make efforts for giving better food security. At least 15 states including Chhattisgarh, Bihar, Tamil Nadu, Madhya Pradesh, Delhi and all 4 southern states already have their own subsidized food program and their own count of beneficiaries. The entitlements and count of beneficiaries under the Central Food Act are different and the Act is supposed to be implemented by the state governments. Most states provide wider coverage than the Central Act[xxiii]. The content of the proposed Act appears to assume that there are no state food programs. Thus, there will be confusion and implementation issues once the Bill is passed.
Critics point out that that eradication of malnutrition requires more than just removal of hunger. Simply providing for the basic minimum food is unlikely to do enough to improve India’s high malnutrition levels. Food security is necessary but not sufficient for nutrition security. There is substance in this critique. For nutrition, the focus should be on children and women. The Food Bill does take a step ahead in that direction, although it could have done more on this front.
Many activists say that for the bulk of the beneficiary population of the poor, just five kg per month per person is insufficient and have to buy rest of the ration from the open market. The TPDS will provide only about 70 to 75 per cent of the food needs[xxiv]. There is nothing in the Bill for the destitute and starving.
While the Indian council of medical research norms recommend that an adult requires 14kgs of food grains per month and children 7kgs; the Bill provides for reduced entitlements to 5kgs per person per month. Also there is an absence of entitlements to pulses and oil in the PDS which does not effectively solve the problem of malnutrition.
The National Food Security Bill 2013 could be a game-changer for national food security if the government is able to overcome corruption and reduce leakage and wastage by involving the local bodies. Much can be learned from states like Chhattisgarh and Tamil Nadu, where increased local participation (through, for example, cooperative ration shops) and have made food distribution transparent and efficient.
Overall better results can be obtained by integrating various welfare schemes designed for the wellbeing of the poor masses. India can learn from countries such as Brazil, Ethiopia and Bangladesh, where income/food transfers were bundled with education and healthcare initiatives[xxv]. The success of such initiative should be measured in terms of how many poor are able to pull themselves from poverty and become self-reliant in the coming years.
Another paradigm shift needed in India’s food security strategy relates to nutrition security. The Food Bill has provision of free nutritious meals to children and pregnant and lactating women, which is very encouraging. Four decades ago, the Green Revolution made India surplus in wheat and rice that are high-calorie but low-nutrient food. The bill, complimented with proper implementation can reduce the problem of food insecurity in India.
Edited by Shristi Banerjee
[i] National food security act , 2013
[iv]supra note 1
[vii]supra note 2
The Food Security Bill of India: Highlights, Benefits, Implementation and Key Issues!
After the rural job guarantee programme, the government is now focusing on an ambitious National Food Security Act aimed at drawing more people into the food security net. It has made a strong pitch for providing 35 kg of cereal at Rs 3 per kg every month to the poor of this country.
The government is earnest to fulfill the party’s poll promise of enacting such a law, and has even provided the broad outlines of the proposed legislation. The rural job scheme and the information Act were conceived and piloted by the National Advisory Council (NAC).The Draft Right to Food (Guarantee of Safety and Security) Act enshrines freedom from hunger and malnutrition as a fundamental right.
It “provides for and asserts the physical, economic and social right of all citizens to have access to safe and nutritious food, consistent with an adequate diet necessary to lead an active and healthy life with dignity”.
The Union Cabinet has approved the Draft National Food Security Bill. It seeks to provide subsidized food grains to over half of India’s 1.2 billion population. The bill was presented to parliament and has been referred to standing committee.
Highlights of the Bill:
a. The food security bill promises 75 percent of rural population and 50 percent of urban households, the right to 7 kg food grains per person, at Rs.3 per kg for rice, Rs.2 per kg for wheat and Rs.1 per kg for coarse grains to the priority beneficiaries.
b. The general category will be provided at least three kilograms of food grains per person per month at half the minimum selling price.
c. The bill will also provide rations or cooked meals to children under 14 years of age, destitute including women and persons on the margins of society.
d. The bill provides for cost-sharing to pacify the states, which will implement the law. The states have also objected over the authority to decide on the criteria to identify the beneficiaries.
e. A three-tier grievance redressal mechanism at district, state and national level is also part of the legislation.
f. The Bill provides for women above 18 years to be considered the head of the beneficiary household for purpose of issue of ration cards. There shall be social audit of the functioning of ration shops.
g. The entitlements would cost the government about Rs. 94,973 crore per annum, as against the existing food subsidy bill estimated at Rs. 67,310 crore. The food grains required to be procured to meet the obligations under the Bill is estimated at about 65 million tonnes, up from the average 50 to 55 million tonnes at present.
The Government had expressed concern that food subsidy, currently at Rs.63, 000 crore ($12 billion), may go up to Rs.1.2 lakh crore ($ 23 billion) if the bill is implemented. Rising fertilizer prices and the Minimum Support Price (MSP) of the grains was another concern.
Managing the finances would not be a problem but procurement would have to be improved. It is estimated that against the current procurement levels of 54 millions tons, the requirement may go up to 62 million tons.
Benefit for Women and Children:
About 2.25 crore pregnant women and lactating mothers are expected to benefit from the legislation that proposes to give Rs. 1,000 per month for six months as maternity benefit. Maternity benefits that are available only in 52 districts will be extended across the country. All this is commendable but there is need for caution since the economy is showing signs of sluggishness.
The budget deficit will need to be watched. Finding the money to fund the ambitious scheme would also be no mean task. With procurement of food grains required to rise from the current 54 million tons to 62 million tons, the Union government would be up against a major challenge especially in years of drought.
Aiming to empower women, the Bill also proposes that the ration card will be issued to the eldest female member of the family. The proposed Bill also holds great promises for children. Children in the lower and upper primary classes would be entitled to mid-day meals as per the prescribed nutritional norms.
The union budget for 2011-12 had provided for Rs 55,586 crore for food subsidy. But while revised estimates are that the food subsidy bill this year will be around Rs. 63,000 crore, the new law would require more food grains and a lot more money to implement.
Fears have been expressed that the new Bill, as and when enacted, will fuel both shortages and inflation. The fears are not misplaced because in August this year, the food grain stock with the government was 61.27 million tons, short of what will be required to implement the scheme.
The annual procurement of food grains by the government stands at 54 million tonnes and will have to be raised to at least 62 million tons, if the scheme is to be implemented.
The draft law explains ways to implement the scheme and prescribes penalties for flawed delivery. While the state has to ensure uninterrupted supply of food-grain through the Public Distribution System (PDS), vigil on distribution will be through quarterly meetings between shop owners and representatives of local bodies who will be involved in the selection of the shop owner.
States will have to fully computerise their PDS within two years of the law and they “shall provide a toll-free number and a website where consumers can register their complaints. All complaints shall be addressed within 39 days of receipt and records of the same shall be made available in the public domain, including the Internet,” says the draft.
A commissioner will be appointed in each state to monitor the scheme, suggest changes in it, investigate scarcities, and award penalties to public servants for failures. The penalties could be a fine of gross salary of one month up to five years for negligence, or imprisonment of six months to five years in case of “deaths or serious morbidity”.
The Manmohan Singh government is to earmark over Rs 50,000 crore for the right to food programme. Though details of the programme’s rollout are yet to be firmed up, the government does not foresee any major hurdles in implementing the scheme. Government sources say the Bill could come up during the winter session of Parliament.
Keeping in mind substantial layoffs in select sectors, in the wake of the global economic crisis, the government is expected to expand the scope of the programme to include sectors such as textiles as well as large sections of agricultural labour impacted by volatilities in the food sector.
Under the public distribution system, the BPL category excludes large sections of the poor, including 52% of agricultural labour households. At present, food stocks with the government are upward of 50 million tonnes, more than twice the storage capacity of the Food Corporation of India, on the back of high rice procurement (30.65 million tonnes) and a record wheat buy (over 24.7 million tonnes).
The need for subsidised food-grain for a wider section of people is also reflected in increased off-take. While the off-take in the Antyodaya system is around 90%, showing people’s desperate need for cheap food-grain, the off-take for BPL families increased from 7.367 million tonnes to 22.845 million tonnes in 2005-06, out of an allocation of 27.32 million tonnes.
As far as above the poverty line (APL) families is concerned, the off-take is much lower, not because people do not need the grain but because for several years there was not much difference in the APL price and the market price.
For the first time, the onus of identification and, more crucially, delivery of grain to consumers could be pinned on panchayats in rural areas and local governments in urban areas, entailing never-before accountability on records of allocation and off-take of grain.
A seamless marriage of current realities and provisions in the proposed legislation would also mean smoothing out existing wrinkles in food-grain availability and accessibility.
There are three essential components of this proposal that need to be fleshed out. And these revolve around the issues of what and how much to give, at what prices and to whom.
a. There is less ambiguity on the first issue of what and how much. The present entitlement for the Antyodaya Anna Yojana (AAY) is 35kg of food-grains per poor household. The Congress party manifesto, however, promises only 25kg per month, way below the minimum nutritional norms. Secondly, the present BPL (below poverty line) or AAY entitlements are only for food-grains (rice and wheat) and do not provide for any other nutritional requirements such as pulses, an essential source of protein. For a nutritionally secure strategy, it is imperative that a minimum 5kg of pulses be added to the basket.
b. The second key issue is at what price. While the manifesto of the Congress party promises rice or wheat at Rs3 per kg, this is no better than the existing entitlement of the AAY. It is, in fact, higher than existing price of food-grains available to the BPL population in as many as eight major states of the country-Andhra Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Gujarat, Karnataka, Kerala, Orissa, Tamil Nadu and West Bengal. These states account for 35% of the rural population. With Madhya Pradesh promising to follow suit, at least 40% of the rural population already enjoys food at Rs 3 per kg or less.
c. However, the third issue is the most crucial, which it is the number of beneficiaries that will be covered by the proposed food security Act. The promise made by the Congress party in its manifesto limits the entitlement to only BPL families. It is here that there is a lack of consensus between the states and the Union government. Going by the present methodology, the government estimates that 65 million households are BPL households and makes the food-grain allocations to states based on this. This number may go down to less than 60 million if the 2004-05 estimates from the Planning Commission are taken as the basis instead of the 1993-94 poverty figures that form the basis of the current estimates.
Against this, the total number of households that have been issued either a BPL or AAY card by state governments is 106.7 million. The state governments are currently doing this by providing additional subsidies from their own budgets.
In Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, for instance, it is almost universal, with around 80% of the population covered under the subsidized food scheme. Any attempt to restrict the number of beneficiaries to the present official poverty estimates (which are known to be flawed) will, therefore, lead to a reduction in the number of beneficiaries to almost half the existing number. Further, an Act should at least guarantee as much as is already being given.
While the estimate of poverty is one issue of contention, how to identify the beneficiaries for effective targeting is also unresolved. The problems with both these are well known and have been officially acknowledged with two expert committees working on resolving these.
The first committee headed by Suresh Tendulkar has been set up to examine the issue of estimation of poverty used by the Planning Commission and the second led by N.C. Saxena has been set up by the ministry of rural development to identify a suitable procedure for identification of BPL households. Both these committees are due to submit their report.
Providing subsidized grains is only one aspect of a food security Act. Such an Act should also address other issues such as malnutrition, especially among children and women, and social vulnerabilities due to barriers of age, caste, gender and disability.
Existing schemes such as the Mid-Day Meal Scheme or the Anganwadi programme for children under six, adolescent girls, pregnant and lactating mothers should also be brought into the ambit of the Act with strengthened universal entitlements. Such an Act has the potential to ensure that no person in the country sleeps hungry, and this must be realized.
The proposed law aims to benefit 65 per cent of the population, which makes little sense unless the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) Government, by implication, is admitting that the vast majority, or two-thirds of the people of India, cannot survive without heavily subsidized food.
Since that is not the case, it remains inexplicable as to why such a large number of beneficiaries are being targeted. While it makes sense to protect the poorest of the poor from hunger and malnutrition, it is absurd to extend the same benefit to those who can do without heavily subsidized food.
Moreover, there are three related aspects, apart from enhanced and ill-affordable subsidy, which merit comment. First, the demand for food grains will result in a shift in agricultural patterns across the country with farmers focusing entirely on rice and wheat. This is bound to cause a shortfall in pulses and cash crops.
To meet that shortage, Government will have to resort to imports which, in turn, will fuel prices. Second, a scheme of this nature can be implemented only if there is a flawless storage and distribution system since neither exists, implementation is bound to suffer.
Third, the main problem with the NAC- conceived cockamamie schemes is that they are premised on the one-size-fits-all logic. There may be States which would rather spend the money on projects that can fetch long-term benefits and sustainable economic security for the poor.
Growth in Hunger:
At the same time, it is most important to answer the questions being raised by those opposing NFSB. Today, development is only understood in the narrow terrain of economic growth and Indian policy makers seem to be infatuated by GDP numbers and their growth.
They have not stepped beyond their narrow, familiar paradigm and taken an interest in improving general living standards. How can Indian polity accept such a growth trend wherein 70 per cent of the total GDP is directly under the control of 8 per cent of India’s elite?
Growth is important, because it helps create a conducive environment for the welfare of people. We cannot, however, accept a growth trajectory that curtails opportunities for the common people and allows grabbing of common resources for short-term gains.
While India’s economy has been growing at a pace of 6 to 9 per cent in the past 12 years, under-nutrition among children has decreased by a trifling 1 per cent between 1998-99 and 2006. Should we accept a ‘mere token 0.1 per cent decline in childhood hunger per year?
We also need to be honest in accepting the fact that the under-fed cannot contribute to the country, even if provided with opportunities because of lack of capabilities. We will have to build an environment of empowerment with nutritional security. Otherwise, how can one expect that the hungry would go to the industries, set up with huge public resources and subsidies, and start working as labour or engineer?
The growth story has a flip side as well. The present level of malnutrition results in 2 to 3 per cent decline in GDP. It delays education, triggers learning disabilities and affects the overall physical and cognitive development of children right from the conception stage.
Every year, we lose 1.3 million children who do not celebrate their fifth birthday and die of under-nutrition and lack of healthcare. Now as the developed world, which has enjoyed the highest level of affluence, is being devastated by a debilitating economic crisis and citizens their protest the prevalent economic policies, it is time for India to decide whether peoples’ well-being should be its priority, or just creating a tiny island of opulence for a handful of people.
It is believed that the Bill, in its present form, is not adequately endowed with a vision to address the very structural causes of food and nutritional insecurity in the country. Three basic issues are at hand.
First, NFSB dwells on targeting beneficiaries, as against providing universal access, and re-invoking the contentious below poverty line (BPL)-above poverty line (APL) battle-lines by seeking to classify the population into “priority” and “non-priority” households.
The intended benefits will be given to people based on these categories. It is a well-known fact that successive governments have failed to identify the poor, and as a result, the majority of our population continues to live with hunger.
Two, the Bill provides for a supply of 7 kg per month subsidised food grains per person in “priority” households, whereas the monthly requirement of a person is 14 kg. Third, the proposed entitlements do not deal with the problem of nutritional insecurity.
In India, people have suffered undernourishment mostly due to protein and fat deficiency. Hence, to cope with the problem, the government should have added pulses to compensate for protein and edible oil to replenish fat; the preamble of the Bill also mentions: “… the Supreme Court of India has recognized the right to food and nutrition as integral to the right to life”.
The National Nutrition Monitoring Bureau figures show that 76.8 per cent of the population does not receive the prescribed nutrition. We need a strong political commitment; otherwise “growth in hunger” will be our leitmotif.
Increase in Food Subsidy:
Already, we are spending Rs. 67,310 crore on food subsidy, and there will be a tiny increase of another Rs. 30,000 crore if NFSB is enacted, which is a trifle 4 per cent of the taxes being usurped by the corporate- economists-government nexus. But consider the positive impact of this humane expenditure.
It will preserve human values and feed the 770 million people going hungry at present. The Indian government will only be giving a subsidy of Rs. 1,188 per person per year or Rs. 3.25 a day. The welfare politics has become very imperative in the past one decade or so.
The government has been running the Integrated Child Development Services, having a plan to spend Rs. 80,000 crore in the next five years; the Mid Day Meal scheme is already in place. We have 170 million children under the age of six, 45 per cent of them are undernourished but we barely spend Rs. 1.62 per child per day on their growth and nutrition.
There is an argument that it is better for the government to focus on productivity enhancement rather than focusing on doling out subsidies at the expense of tax-payers. But these two things are not mutually exclusive; they are complementary.
Let us understand one thing: India is not a food deficit country; we produce surplus food grains, but due to various reasons it does not reach a large number of our hungry people. If this continues, the argument of productivity will not hold any weight. Yes, it is true that we still have one of the lowest per hectare productivity, but this is also the time to think on the adverse impact of technologies on agriculture.
A part of this discussion is linked to public procurement and minimum support price (MSP) for farm produce. If the government stops subsidising agriculture, profit makers will benefit and consumers will have to pay high prices. Just take the example of pulses.
We pay Rs 36 per kg as MSP to the farmer for tuar dal, but its market price was Rs. 110 some time ago. There is an urgent requirement to ensure maximum public procurement, which can only be done and applied through the Public Distribution System (PDS).
The other aspect deals with policy perspective. For the past 20 years, the per capita food production in India is stagnant at around 460 grams per person per day; pulses are the key source of protein, but the availability has dipped from 70 g per day in the 1960s to 42 g in recent times.
We adopted new technologies: hybrid seeds, chemical fertilizers and pesticides in order to increase agriculture production. Punjab sacrificed its community techniques and blindly used large quantities of chemicals, which has resulted in low soil fertility. Overall, the present draft of the Bill is just a modest beginning. We have to think and decide what our priority is.