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Building a better India: filling food security gaps

india Updated: Nov 30, 2013 10:14 IST
National Food Security Act

The passage of the National Food Security Act (NFSA) made 2013 a landmark year for the right to food in India. It was a small but significant step in the battle against hunger.

If the year was witness to the emergence of a political consensus, nationally, on the right to food, the next year will need to be characterised more by action and not just intent.

The principal challenge in 2014 will be the implementation of the NFSA, beginning with the identification of who receives the entitlements guaranteed under the act.

The results of the socio-economic caste census (SECC) are not in as yet and the act itself leaves the task of identification to the state governments.

While some states may choose to universalise the entitlements under the act for the public distribution system (PDS) to extend the reach of the programme, particularly for rural areas, others may choose to use exclusion criteria to keep out the rich.

Without a rational choice of entitlement-holders, much of the promise of the NFSA will remain unrealised.

The next challenge will be to put in place reforms and systems to deliver quality services for not just the PDS, but also the mid-day meals, the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) and maternity entitlements.

While much ink has flowed on the delivery — or the lack of it — of the PDS, the other programmes, which are part of the NFSA, need urgent attention for reforms.

The ICDS remains the weakest link, albeit one that is now expected to see a major revival with restructuring now underway.

The NFSA outlines the reforms that could be undertaken on the PDS, but does little by way of detailing the changes required in the other programmes. This gap will need to be addressed by proactive state governments, who have a much higher stake in the delivery of these services.

What marks out the NFSA from business-as-usual schemes is the grievance redress system that would make the entitlements justiciable. It is also the area where least thought has been devoted — both by the state governments and the Centre.

With the rules of the NFSA not yet in place, there is little clarity on how these mechanisms will unfold and whether it will make access to justice, in case of systemic failures, easier for people.

For governments, the task on this front is cut out; one that hopefully they will address.

With the NFSA focusing on the reduction of hunger, reduction in malnutrition remains pretty much unaddressed in the legislation. Any attack on malnutrition will entail dealing with social determinants other than just food. These include, primarily, access to potable drinking water, sanitation and provisioning of quality primary health care.

On each of these, India faces a bigger challenge than most other developing countries. It is only in the last few years that the institutional understanding of what needs to be done to tackle malnutrition has deepened within government and civil society.

The helpful comparison between temples and toilets, which is now catching on across the political spectrum, will hopefully translate to more political willingness for providing better access to these very basic services.

Year 2014 will also see the emergence of unprecedented new challenges to food security. The WTO Ministerial in Bali could potentially undo the entire public procurement system of the government that has been in place for five decades now. Any concession that India grants there, especially signing on the “peace clause” under pressure from the US and the EU, would not only impede the implementation of the NFSA but also seriously impact the already fragile livelihoods of hundreds of millions of Indians in the farm sector.

The agrarian crisis that has led to more than a quarter of a million farmers committing suicide (since 1996), has received little attention from policymakers.

The NFSA gave the short shrift to the farm sector, and hopefully 2014 will bring with it the promise of reversing this unconscionable neglect.

India has been at the bottom of the rankings for most social sector indicators and Indians have for too long debated the reasons for it. The belated recognition that the second fastest growing economy in the world cannot continue to be burdened with these statistics is finally resulting in policy action.

But legislation alone cannot suffice to deal with problem of hunger. It will need the concerted action of governments, civil society and citizens at large. 2014 may finally be the year when that promise is realised.

Biraj Patnaik is the principal adviser to the commissioners of the Supreme Court in the right to food case.

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