India's National Food Security Act: Entitlement of Hunger
Sachin Kumar Jain
In a complex context of rising food prices, well maintained under-nutrition among children and women, growing hunger and inequality, the Government of India initiated a process to enact National Food Security Act (NFSA). The Empowered Group of Ministers (EGoM) was set up by the central government to outline the framework of this act.
The two key—and problematic—points proposed by the EGoM in the draft food security law are that the definition of food security would be “limited to the specific issue of food grains security (wheat and rice) and be delinked from the larger issue of nutrition security”; and only 25kg of food grains are provided per family, despite the fact that an average family of five, including two children, requires about 60 kg of food grains, 5kg pulses and 4ltrs of edible oil per month.
According to article 47 of India’s constitution, “The State shall regard the raising of the level of nutrition and the standard of living of its people and the improvement of public health as among its primary duties”. Any discussion and legislation on food security should therefore cover all nutritional aspects needed for survival; sufficient micronutrients and calorific norms should be provided through local foodstuff.
One of the major causes of increasing malnutrition in India is the dearth of fat and protein in the food plate. By keeping the quota of grains so low and without ensuring entitlement of pulses (for protein) and edible oil (for fat), India will not be able to reduce or eliminate malnutrition—this is a point that the pro-market government must comprehend!
Every Indian adult should be eligible for 14kg of grains (including nutritious coarse grains like jawar, bajra and jaudhari) at the rate of Rs 2 per kg, 1.5kg pulses at the rate of Rs 20 per kg, and edible oil at the rate of Rs 35 per kg. It should be ensured that children get half of the above mentioned quota. Furthermore, the ration card should be made in the name of the female head of the family. In fact, the proposed provision of 25kg grain is far less than the 35kg per family quota fixed by the Supreme Court in its 10 January 2008 order. If the 25kg entitlement is legalized, it will demean the verdict of India’s apex court.
The path on which government officers such as agriculture minister Sharad Pawar are progressing shows no interest in providing food security to deprived sectors of society, such as the elderly, widows, disabled persons, children, destitute and pregnant women. Today, 46 percent of India’s children and 55 percent of its women are malnourished, the world’s highest infant mortality, child mortality and maternal mortality are recorded in India, and 40 percent of the world’s starvation-hit people live in our country. In these circumstances, limiting legal food entitlements is a constitutional outrage, and a testimony that the present structure of the state corresponds to profit mongers and neo-capitalists rather than people suffering from chronic hunger, exclusion and social insecurity.
During the past 10 years, when India’s GDP grew fastest at 8 and 9 percent, there was also the fastest increase in the number of starvation-hit people. Ignoring the fact that drought, floods, typhoons and climate change have led to an increase in starvation is an insult to democracy. Change in agriculture patterns and crop priorities, such as food for bio-fuel and the diversion of agricultural land for industrial purposes, have led the world to a food crisis. Should not the draft food bill address these structural causes of hunger, or is the state’s obligation met by the distribution of limited food grain and conditional cash transfers?
The continual statements by India’s prime minister, agriculture and finance ministers that the rising prices of food commodities is out of control, shows the failure of the government and of the world’s fastest growing economy in controlling food production and distribution mechanisms. It also proves that development priorities now are controlled by the market and certain corporations. Since 2005, the government has been promoting the corporations’ direct food grain procurement from the farmers, instead of strengthening systems to protect farmers and food production.
The Indian government seems to have no compunction in violating the Supreme Court’s order on right to food, which the Court significantly linked to the fundamental right to life. Since 2001, the apex court is hearing public interest litigation on hunger, malnutrition, social insecurity and employment related rights issues, and has passed 65 such orders that hold the government accountable and require it to allocate sufficient resources. It is now clear that the government is attempting to save itself from the directives of the Supreme Court through this new proposed law; its intention is not in fact to fight hunger. The Mid-Day Meal scheme and the anganwadi (child care) centers are also schemes for food security, but the government is trying its best to keep them out of the legal rights ambit—these and other existing schemes are not included in the proposed law—so that the private sector may be given leeway into the production and supply of supplementary nutrition and school meals. It can be said that the government is trying to unravel the relationship between life and food—as defined by the judiciary—by restricting food security provisions to Below-Poverty-Line families and 25kgs of food grain.
The Supreme Court’s progressive orders ensuring a multitude of food rights, such as providing 35kgs ration per family, subsidized rations for poor families under the Antyodaya Anna Yojana scheme, supplementary nutritious food and care for infants and children under the age of six through the Integrated Child Development Services, security to pregnant and lactating women under the National Maternity Benefit Scheme and the Janani Suraksha Yojana, mid-day meals at schools, national old age pensions, along with provisions for the destitute, urban poor, homeless children, single women and widows. Government officials are making their best efforts to bury these rights. The EGoM’s draft law proposes deficient rights to be delivered through a collapsed public distribution system (PDS1), as well as a boycott of certain social sectors at a time when the Justice Wadhwa Commission recommends widening the ambit of these rights and reforms in the PDS , in its recent report to the Supreme Court. This suggests that the group of ministers is strategically moving to systemically demolish interventions designed in the court for ensuring citizens’ right to food.
The draft law makes the central government responsible for identifying poverty levels and allocating food or money to state governments, while the state governments are responsible for the implementation and monitoring of the resources. It seems some in the government are working hard to fabricate a political rhyme out of this law. After all, vases of dried flowers adorn big palaces even if they lack life or scent. If dead things can add to the beauty of palaces, then beauty can be looked for in people living and dying with hunger too, as is being done in the proposed law.
State governments are not allowed to make decisions in accordance to state needs, to extend rights or provide better food security, under the proposed law. This will only add to the pressure on state governments to give more of their own resources. If the example of Chhattisgarh state is taken, the government is forced to spend Rs 18 thousand million per year, just to provide food grains to beneficiaries. If the central government does not fulfill its responsibilities and if all poor families are not entitled to food grains, state governments would have to spend an estimated Rs 230 thousand million from their own budgets. It is surprising that state governments and opposition political parties are remaining silent on this atrocious law. Their silence will diminish the democratic space and pride of the poor and food insecure in India.
Furthermore, no special authority, commission or special courts would be set up to look into violations of rights and entitlements under the proposed food security law. This means that victims of rights violations would only have the present justice system as their recourse, which is not particularly accessible to the poor and marginalized, and where 1.4 million cases are still waiting to be resolved. Under these circumstances, not only would an increase of hunger related deaths be imminent while waiting for court decisions, but entire families could disappear.
Another surprising factor is that the government is only talking of grain distribution, but is silent on issues such as grain production, security to farmers, and preventing the diversion of agricultural land, forest and water for corporations. In the near future, food grains will be imported so that multinational companies benefit through public resources. Efforts are also being made to employ a policy of conditional cash transfers in place of food grains to the beneficiaries, so the government does not have to procure grains and could thus save on the subsidy money. Whether this will in fact lead to any savings will only be known later, but what would happen to the farmers? Has the government given any thought to this question? The open market is already prepared to eat up India’s farmers and farming without any hiccup.
1 The present public distribution system is on the brink of total destruction as 40-60 percent of its grain is lost in the absence of vigilance and accountability.