A potentially historic piece of social legislation that will legally guarantee food for all is likely to soon conclude its prolonged, rocky and uncertain journey. Parliament, in its forthcoming budget session, is expected to finally decide the contours of a law to reduce endemic widespread hunger and malnourishment in the country.
The imagination of this statute is to create legally binding obligations for the State to ensure food - as subsidised grain, infant feeds, free cooked meals and social security cash transfers - to every child, woman and man lacking assured access to sufficient food for an active and healthy life. In a country which, despite galloping economic growth, is home to every third malnourished child in the world, and the largest number of chronically hungry people, one could have expected substantial national consensus for the proposed bill.
But many among the country's senior leadership, lawmakers, planners, economists, industry and the influential middle class remain ambivalent about a food law, convinced that it is profligate and administratively not implementable. No wonder that the proposed law has been continuously eroded at every stage of its four-year journey. The initial draft law by the National Advisory Council (NAC) and the right to food campaign were criticised by the Left parties for failing to universally cover all households with subsidised foodgrains. It contained many robust protections for children, women, destitute groups, malnourished children and people in starvation, but these were curtailed in a weakened bill approved by the Cabinet for Parliament.
I still had faith that the Parliamentary Standing Committee (PSC) would restore the body and soul of a strong food law, as it had done for the Right to Information statute. The PSC did improve on earlier proposals in two ways. First, it covers all households with uniform entitlements of subsidised grain except those which are excluded by transparent criteria. Second, it extends school meals to children up to 16 years, up from the current 14 years. But my optimism lies belied, because the PSC otherwise diluted the already weakened official draft, with many disappointing and indefensible deletions.
It brought down the numbers eligible for subsidised grain in the countryside to 75% from 90%, as proposed by the NAC. The quantity of grain per individual is also down to 5 kg from the proposed 7 kg, despite massive grain procurement of over 60 million tonnes over the past five years - which the government still prefers to let rot rather than distribute to the hungry.
Even graver is the complete elimination of the Integrated Child Development Service (ICDS) from the ambit of the law on the specious grounds that ICDS is not yet equipped to deliver legal guarantees because of operational and programmatic gaps. Malnutrition sets in irreversibly in the first 1,000 days of life, and indeed even before this in the mother's womb, and ICDS is the only State programme which serves children below six years, with pregnant and nursing mothers. The Supreme Court converted all ICDS services into legal guarantees more than a decade ago in 2001, and the PSC seeks to reverse this now.
The PSC further curtails children's right to food, by restricting this to only one meal a day, provided in schools for children of two to 16 years "or the age at which they start school". As children enter government school only at six, this excludes children in the age group of two to six. The food rights of the most vulnerable children of all, those who do not attend school, through the requirement that no child would be turned away from any feeding centre on any grounds, are again eliminated.
The proposal to entitle lactating mothers support for exclusive breastfeeding through assistance at birth, skilled breastfeeding counselling and related assistance is again withdrawn. Further, governments aren't duty-bound to identify malnourished children and entitlements of severely malnourished children to care at Nutrition Rehabilitation Centres or in the community have been withdrawn. The committee also restricts maternity benefits only to two children. This unfairly penalises poorest women and children, because large families are a result of poverty, gender inequalities and poor health services.
It is equally unfortunate that the PSC removes destitute feeding centres, suggesting that such a programme will be difficult to implement. Tamil Nadu and Orissa have implemented successful destitute feeding programmes for years, and this has been the last defence of the poorest against starvation in these states. Other reasons cited by the PSC for deletion are extraordinarily disrespectful to the poor, suggesting that poor households will turn away old members just so that they can get free food.
Gone also are other entitlements of persons living with starvation. These included duties of state governments to establish protocols for preventing starvation, providing relief, investigating starvation deaths and assigning accountability. Likewise, all protections for people grappling with emergencies are also excised from the bill.
All effective rights legislations, like the Right to Information law, require strong independent grievance redress mechanisms, with penalties for violations by public officials. Both the Cabinet draft and the PSC have completely diluted these enforcement systems, thereby critically weakening the law.
Although convincing economic arguments can be made in support of a food rights law for strengthening the gains of India's demographic dividend, I have argued in my book Ash in the Belly: India's Unfinished Battle Against Hunger that ultimately the case for the law is ethical, the unacceptability of mass suffering of hunger and malnutrition in a country with wealth and food resources. Gandhi had counselled us to recall, in moments of doubt, the poorest and weakest person we know. I hope that it is his face which our lawmakers remember when they reflect on a law which - if we get it right - can alter the destinies of millions of our most dispossessed people.
Harsh Mander is Director, Centre for Equity Studies
The views expressed by the author are personal