The UPA-II Government has
taken four years after it announced its intention to legislate the right to food to actually pass the National Food Security Bill [NFSB]. This bill has been brought forward at a time when there are 80 million tonnes of grains in the government godowns and increased public action highlighting widespread hunger. This was an opportune time to bring in a comprehensive Food Security Act which addressed issues of expanding production, decentralised procurement and storage and universal distribution along with special measures to reach out to the most vulnerable. However the government has missed this opportunity by passing a minimalistic Bill.
While almost every political party raised issues related to guarantee of income for farmers, assuring Minimum Support Price, universal coverage under the Public Distribution System(PDS), including pulses and oil in PDS, the necessity of 14 kgs of foodgrains, scrapping cash transfers, community kitchens, removal of contractors, the absurdity of the poverty lines, protecting small and marginal farmers during the debate in Parliament, unfortunately none of the amendments related to these got passed. The millions of poor and food insecure in the country who have been waiting for a comprehensive food Bill may get some small consolation from the fact that hunger, malnutrition and state's obligation towards addressing this was discussed and debated in Parliament for many hours.
There are some positive aspects in the Bill, which have enormous potential to transform the PDS, especially in poor states. Firstly, though per head entitlements have been reduced from 7 kgs per head to 5 kgs (which amounts to the measly amount of 166 gms per day per adult), at least the numbers covered have been increased. In West Bengal, the population to be covered is 601.64 lakh or 65.88% (463.31 lakh in rural areas or 74.47% of the rural population, and 138.53 lakh or 47.55% of urban population). The Act has promised to continue to provide the existing allocation of 38.49 lakh tonnes of food-grains to West Bengal at the reduced price of Rs 3 for rice, Rs 2 for wheat and Re l for millets.
This would immediately mean a saving of Rs 400-500 crore for the West Bengal Government on its Rs 2 rice programme. This money could then be used to cover increasing numbers of rural poor , starting with 90% coverage in the poorest districts. The experience of other states such as Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Chhattisgarh has shown that expanding coverage improves the PDS and minimises exclusion errors.
Secondly, rather than having opaque and complicated procedures for identifying the poor, what is now possible is to exclude the rich and cover the rest of the population with uniform entitlements. If simple exclusion criteria such as keeping out those who are income tax payees, have regular jobs, own four-wheelers etc. are devised; then this can minimise exclusion errors to a large extent. In the current PDS system, about half of those who are poor do not even have BPL cards. However, since the Bill remains silent on the identification criteria, there is a danger that the West Bengal Government may not adopt the exclusion approach, but will come up with some messy system of identification of beneficiaries under the Act. The response of Delhi and Rajasthan, where the provisions of the Bill are being rolled out first show that state governments will do just this.
The other positive aspect of the Bill is in relation to women's empowerment. The ration cards will be in the name of women. Universal maternity entitlements will be provided to all pregnant and lactating women, to the tune of Rs 6000 over six months. This recognises women as workers and their right to wage compensation for maternity leave in order to exclusively breastfeed the child. As breast feeding has also been recognised as a right, this also means that the Government and employers will have to provide all work sites with women workers with creche facilities and breaks for breast feeding.
However, the NFSB fails in its vision by not being ambitious enough and only paying lip service to the right to food. It provides for minimalistic entitlements whereas what was needed was a complete re-imagining of the food economy in the country by keeping the small and marginal farmer who is producing food and the most vulnerable person who needs food at its centre.
The first gap in this Bill is that there is no provision for fanners—they are the ones who will be the backbone of the food bill and have to be supported by adequate MSPs, decentralised procurement, incentives for production and so on. The Act should have put in place a mechanism for procurement from all states in the country, with timely payments and direct purchase from small farmers ensuring that they get remunerative prices.
Second, to make a dent on malnutrition it is not enough to give cereals, that too just 5kgs—for nutrition at least pulses and oil is required even though it is already being done by many state governments like Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu and Chhattisgarh. Third, there are no special provisions for community kitchens in urban areas and destitute feeding programmes—these were essential to reach the last person, the destitute, the homeless, the aged and the disabled. Again Chhattisgarh, Delhi and Tamil Nadu have already started cheap canteens in cities. Fourth, there are no clear guidelines to keep out commercial interests from taking advantage of the enhanced budgets that will now become available for the schemes that fall under the Bill. Fifth, the Force Majeure clause which exempts the Governments from liabilities during disasters has remained. Sixth, the replacement of food grains by a dangerous cash transfer system still remain a distinct possibility.
What is more grievance redressal mechanisms are not strong enough with low penalties and no effective system at the village and Panchayat level. It is here that the State Government, with its power to formulate rules can take a strong role, if it strengthens vigilance committees at all levels and sets up mechanisms for transparency and quick and effective grievance redressal at block and Panchayat levels, with strong penalties. In fact, it is only this that will ensure that food grains do not continue to be siphoned off by the nexus of bureaucracy, local political leaders and ration dealers. The State government should also take a lesson from the 2007 ration riots to understand that food remains a sensitive issue, which requires strong action and good governance.
The response in the mainstream media that blames the Food Bill for the fall in the Rupee and the problems in the economy are not based on facts and only point to the strong lobbies in the country against allowing any spending for the poor. In truth the additional expenditure on PDS because of this Act is only around 0.25% of the GDP, while over Rs 5 lakh crore (~5% of GDP) of revenue is forgone by the government each year, mostly to favour business and corporate interests.
The NFSA is only a modest first step towards addressing hunger and malnutrition in the country. The Right to Food campaign will continue its struggle for comprehensive interventions for the food security of all. The Rules must be made in such manner that the entitlements provided in the Act are further strengthened. In each state, what is urgently needed is to ensure that there is a proper identification of beneficiaries.
The Parliamentarians have to be held accountable to the statements they made on the floor of the House. Parties that introduced amendments to expand and strengthen the Bill must include these in their manifestos for the coming Lok Sabha elections. In West Bengal, where both the ruling TMC and the opposition Left Front have advocated universalisation, inclusion of pulses and oils, steps in favour of farmers etc one can hope that rising above narrow political differences , all parties will work towards making the right to food a complete right, instead of the fractured right it has been made in the Central Act.
Vol. 46, No. 17, Nov 3 -9, 2013
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