Crumbs on the plate

India can create history by giving its citizens the legal right to food, but for that Parliament needs to clear the air of uncertainty that surrounds the food security bill, writes Harsh Mander.

columns Updated: May 01, 2013 22:49 IST

It now seems increasingly unlikely that Parliament will consider the National Food Security Bill during this budget session. In a land which for centuries suffered devastating famines, where chronic hunger continues to stalk more than 200 million people, and which is home to every third malnourished child on the planet, this would be one more sad betrayal of the country’s indigent millions, a reminder of how little they count.

But if indeed our lawmakers pass this law, after correcting its infirmities, Parliament would make history. India would become one of the few countries in the world where it will be the legal duty of the government, enforceable in a court of law, to provide food for hundreds of millions of impoverished men, women and children within its boundaries.

What have attracted most public attention in the bill are its provisions for subsidised foodgrains under the Public Distribution System (PDS). The greatest merit of the revised Bill that the government is likely to present in Parliament is that it will finally eliminate BPL identification as a qualification for securing subsidised food.

Instead of identifying households that are poor, state governments will now identify those which are rich and exclude them from the PDS. All others, around three quarters of all rural households, and semi-urban households, will receive highly subsidised rice, wheat or millets.

This burial of ‘BPL’ has come not a day too early: official poverty line grossly underestimates poverty; and successive poverty censuses (for identifying poor households) have excluded many more impoverished households than those included.

The amount of foodgrains that the bill guarantees —25 kg a month per household — is below the current scale of 35 kg, which is estimated to be half a household’s total cereal requirements. With millions of tonnes of foodgrains rotting in government warehouses, this tight-fistedness is disappointing. Guarantees should also include pulses and oilseeds.

But for me, the greatest failing of the latest version of the Bill is that it has erased all protections for those who are most vulnerable to starvation.

Any food rights law must first protect those who are most gravely denied food. But it is precisely provisions for these ‘last persons’ who have been eliminated in the final stages of the Bill: the right of children who are out of school to eat from any feeding centre, and kitchens for the destitute and homeless.

If Parliamentarians debate the Bill I hope they restore these provisions, which indeed are the soul of the food Bill. They partly derive from centuries-old traditions like the langar which are sadly eroding in contemporary India. States like Tamil Nadu and Odisha have successfully run destitute feeding programmes for decades, which have proved an invaluable last defence against starvation, for the aged, disabled, infirm, and single women.

The budgetary requirements of these programmes are — by all standards — modest. What has also been axed is the Starvation Code, which would lay down mandatory duties for state officials to prevent and address starvation and destitution. Eliminated also are requirements for governments to prevent child malnutrition, and where it occurs, to treat it effectively, in public health institutions or the community; and feeding provisions for people hit by natural disasters and riots.

In the writing of any law, a lot depends on the fine print, which our lawmakers need to be mindful of, for the sake of our poorest children and women.

Maternity benefits are restricted to schemes made by the government, which currently qualify women for only up to two children. This effectively bars the poorest women and their children, penalising them for a situation in which they are victims, not transgressors.

Another critical small print issue relates to food supply in the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) scheme. A child’s best bet to secure this is through hot freshly cooked meals prepared by local women’s groups. This is what the Supreme Court mandates, but in open defiance of its guidelines, state governments in Maharashtra, Gujarat, Karnataka and Uttar Pradesh have persisted in illegally giving contracts to private contractors (like the infamous Ponty Chadha whose firm continues to monopolise ICDS food supply in Uttar Pradesh).

In the food Bill, a Schedule is inserted requiring ‘Energy Dense Foods fortified with Micronutrients’. This seemingly innocent language will actually open the doors for only certain large private contractors to supply the food under ICDS through centralised production, because no local women’s groups will be able to ensure precise micronutrient fortification.

The evidence is that child nutrition is best served not with fortified manufactured food but with diverse local nutritious diets which will meet their calorie, protein and micronutrient requirements; and in which local transparency limits the scope for centralised large corruption.

Another major failing of the Bill is its unconscionable neglect of the farm sector, ignoring the shameful irony that the largest population of food insecure households are precisely those which themselves produce food.

The National Commission for Farmers chaired by MS Swaminathan had earlier proposed a Minimum Support Price Guarantee for all farmers’ produce, which is equivalent to the cost of production plus 50%. By including this in the food Bill, not just the production of food but the income guarantee of food producers could have been legally mandated.

High malnutrition is related also to deplorable sanitation, open defecation, fouled drinking water, and denials of healthcare. These should be subjects of later legal guarantees.

But for the present, if and when Parliament finds the time to vote to ensure food for all, I hope that it restores to centrestage guarantees for the poorest and hungriest — for the malnourished child, for children unable to enter school, for the destitute, aged, infirm and starving. If their hopeless hunger, unbroken through the centuries, finally begins to end, India’s Parliament will make history.

Harsh Mander is Director, Centre for Equity Studies. The views expressed by the author are personal.

First Published: May 01, 2013 22:41 IST