New tensions are emerging between the government and its think tank, with the food ministry making major changes to a National Advisory Council (NAC) draft of a new law slated to become the blockbuster social-security scheme of the UPA's troubled second tenure.
Key provisions of the National Food Security bill, 2011, due to be introduced in Parliament's next session starting August 2 - and estimated to cost the government Rs 20,000 crore to Rs 40,000 crore every year in food subsidies, in addition to the Rs 70,000 crore it now incurs - have been toned down or deleted. The Hindustan Times has reviewed the NAC and government versions of the bill.
The government version, which has not yet been sent to the NAC, has deleted entitlements for single-women households, a chapter on grievance redressal, punishment for dereliction of duty and compensation for those who do not get food, which, the NAC argues, is the "bedrock" of the proposed law.
Rights of people living with starvation and children with malnutrition and an independent enforcement authority have been watered down. "I am extremely disappointed. It's a caricature of the notion of the right to food," said Harsh Mander, convener of the NAC's food security group, its largest committee. "They (the food ministry) have reduced it to supplying free meals and subsidised foodgrains."
"The government will be missing a great opportunity if it goes ahead with this draft," said Mander. "Maternal and child nutrition should have been at the heart of such a law." Nearly half of all Indian children are malnourished, as are millions of adults, more than anywhere else in the world.
The NAC draft was forwarded by UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi to the government on July 2. The food ministry, tasked by the government to review the NAC draft, has forwarded its version to an Empowered Group of Ministers, which will decide the final draft to be submitted to Parliament.
"We have removed from the NAC version some rhetoric, problematic areas and tried to make it financially realistic, while retaining its essence," said a top government functionary, declining to be identified because of the political sensitivity of the issue. "There is nothing wrong with this."
A key government change is the reduction of foodgrain entitlement per person from 4 kg to 3 kg per month, a quarter less than the NAC proposal. The NAC contends this could mean compromising on "adequate nutrition". The government says 4 kg would strain India's finances and foodgrain stocks. The government version of the bill is shorter and terser. Some of the changes appear to be an attempt to safeguard government primacy over enforcement. Others are attempts to reduce state liability. A few appear to be hasty rewriting-or combinations of all these.
For instance, the NAC draft says: "Homeless persons shall mean persons who live in structures without a roof, such as on the roadside, pavements, drainage pipes, under staircases, outside shops." The food ministry's version: "Homeless person-who does not live in a structure, or lives in shelter for homeless."
The right to food is the third such legally enforceable right of the UPA's two tenures. The right to work, under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA), was the first, during the UPA's first term. The right to education was the second.
Both are presently struggling with enforcement issues: The right to work was to guarantee 100 days of work, it has managed to do provide half that figure or less; in some states it is no more than 15 days. "We have the experience of education and the NREGA," said Mander, criticising the government's deletion of an independent enforcing authority. "We've seen that you might grant a number of rights, but without independent enforcement, they will not be realised."
The Hunger Project is a joint effort of Hindustan Times and Mint to track, investigate and report every aspect of the struggle to rid India of hunger.