The original intention was laudable but the final product leaves quite a bit to be desired. To make matters worse, the timing of its launch is all wrong, making everyone suspicious about whether the UPA government is really serious about the issue of hunger and food entitlement or is only interested in the votes that a food security law could fetch in the coming general elections.
The National Food Security Bill, which was passed by an ordinance on Wednesday (it still needs to be ratified by Parliament) proposes to make food a legal right and seeks to cover two-thirds of the population. It promises to provide 5kg of rice, wheat or millets at R3, R2 and R1 per kg/per month. The Bill also proposes free meals and maternity benefits for pregnant women, lactating mothers, children between the ages of six months and 14 years, and malnourished children and destitute and homeless people.
While the Bill has been up in the air for almost four years now, the lack of political unanimity on its provisions, even among the UPA's constituents, had stalled its smooth passage.
One criticism has been on the question of food distribution through the State-owned ration shops. While in an ideal world that would be the right route, everyone in India knows that these shops are not the right avenue for the distribution of grains because of large-scale corruption. Next is the system of identification of beneficiaries.
While the original plan was to bring in a law that would ensure that every household received at least 35kg of grain per month from the public distribution system, the new one does not provide universal access.
Instead it restricts the responsibility of the government to provide subsidised food grain to households on the basis of defined eligibility criteria. Once again, this could lead to more corruption as we have seen with the issue of below poverty line (BPL) cards and the MNREGA job cards.
The supporters of the National Security Food Bill have called it a game-changer. But there are too many imponderables now for it to become one. And that's a pity because India desperately needs a sound public policy to tackle its ever-growing problem of hunger.