Right to Food: An Analysis of the Food Security Bill
Food Security refers to a situation that exists when all people at all times, have physical, social and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life.
Despite being a developing country with an increasing GDP (gross domestic product), India accounts for a third of the world’s poor, according to a world bank survey. Almost 50 % of children under five are malnourished, and more than one – third of Indians aged 15 to 49 are undernourished, according to India’s National Family Health Survey in 2006.
India was still ranked a low number 15 on the Global Hunger Index in 2011. These statistics indicate a need to tackle issues of hunger and poverty in the Country.
The nutritional status of individual household members is the ultimate focus of food security. Household food security is the application of the concept of food security to the family level with individuals within households as the focus of concern.
RIGHT TO FOOD
The right to food can be seen as an implication of the fundamental “right to life”, enshrined in Article 21 of the Indian Constitution. The Supreme Court has stated on various occasions, that the right to life should be interpreted as a right to “live with human dignity”, which includes the right to food and other basic necessities.
The relevant Articles of the Constitution are as follows:
Article 21: “No person shall be deprived of his life or personal liberty except according to procedure established by law.”
Article 39(a): “The State shall… direct its policy towards securing that the citizen, men and women equally, have the right to an adequate means of livelihood…”
Article 47: “The State shall regard the raising of the level of nutrition and the standard of living of its people and the improvement of public health as among its primary duties…”
Article 32(1): “The right to move the Supreme Court by appropriate proceedings for the enforcement of the rights conferred by this Part is guaranteed.”
The right to food can also be linked with Articles 39(a) and 47 of the Constitution. Article 39(a) directs the State to ensure that all citizens have “the right to an adequate means of livelihood”. According to Article 47, “the State shall regard the raising of the level of nutrition and the standard of living of its people and the improvement of public health as among its primary duties”.
THE CURRENT SCENARIO
The government accepted the findings of the Tendulkar Committee, formed by the Planning Commission, which found that 37.2% of our population lives below the poverty line (BPL), meaning that almost two-fifths of Indians go hungry. A study conducted by Arjun Sengupta, Utsa Patnaik and the National Nutritional Monitoring Bureau concludes that 75-78% of the people do not receive adequate food and nutrition. The Tendulkar committee concluded that a rural folk can survive on an intake of 1,999 calories, while their urban counterparts need 1,770 calories. The conclusions differ from the findings of the Indian Council of Medical Research which stipulates that 2,400 calories is required in rural settings and 2,100 calories in urban settings. They also stipulated a higher figure for hard and intensive labour which requires a minimum intake of 3,400-3,800 calories. There have been various differing definitions of poverty and who is below the poverty line, with different committees and researches concluding different figures. This gives rise to ambiguity about the current situation of food insecurity in India.
The present crisis of food insecurity is due to the consistent exploitation and negligence of agriculture and the rural sector. In the age of urbanisation, two-thirds of our population still depends on agriculture whereas the total contribution of agriculture to India’s GDP is a dismal 17%. At the other end of the spectrum, private enterprises that account to only 1%, stake their claim to one-third of the country’s GDP.
To ensure food security to weaker sections of the society, the Government has implemented a number of programmes/schemes such as Targeted Public Distribution System (TPDS) focused on Below Poverty Line (BPL) families, Other Welfare Schemes such as Mid-Day Meal Scheme of School Children Integrated Child Development Services Scheme (ICDS) for pre-school children and mothers, Annapurna Scheme for indigent citizens who are not eligible for National Old age Pension/ benefits under other schemes of Government, Village Grain Banks Scheme (VGB) etc.
Problems with the Public distribution system include unaccountability, inefficiency and corruption; there are severe leakages in the system which results in the services not being provided to the people it is supposed to serve. The Government of India has so far been unwilling to reform the public distribution system, and avoids acknowledging the fact that it has been unable to deliver hungry Indians their entitlements. Being extremely vulnerable, people living below the poverty line are unjustly exploited by the forces of an open market.
There have also been various judicial interventions. In 2011, the Supreme Court directed the Centre to release five million tonnes of food grains for distribution in 150 poverty-stricken districts and other poorer segments. Also, in a 2009 report by the Justice Wadhwa Committee constituted by the Supreme Court, the committee recommended the adoption of modern technology such as smart cards, and said collusion between fair price shop dealers, transporters and politicians was responsible for the leakages.
Despite these government interventions, there arose a need for the people to be able to address their grievances in cases where there was no access to such schemes/ guarantees. There was a system of inefficiency and non accountability which lead to regular violations of citizen rights.
THE NEW FOOD SECURITY BILL
Despite, the various schemes already in place, the problem of hunger has continued to exist in the country. There was a need to shift from a welfare based approach to a rights based approach towards the issue of food security in the country.
The Food security bill was part of the Congress manifesto during the 2009 polls which they won. The Bill was first introduced in the parliament in December, 2011 and was finally passed in July, 2013. Many criticized the government for passing the bill too hastily, and with clear political motives. Many critics claimed that the country’s declining economy was not fit to handle the large scale welfare scheme and that it was not well thought out. Still, many welcomed the move, stating that the bill, whether passed with or without political motive, would help in eradicating problems of hunger and malnourishment and is a bill that the government should place as one of its top priorities.
The preamble of the act states:
“An Act to provide for food and nutritional security in human life cycle approach, by ensuring access to adequate quantity of quality food at affordable prices to people to live a life with dignity and for matters connected therewith or incidental thereto”
The food security bill aims to provide subsidised food grains to around 67% of the population, arguably making it one of the biggest welfare schemes of the world. Under the bill, the ‘priority’ groups will be able to buy purchase 5 kgs of rice at 3 rs a kg, wheat at 2 rs a kg and millet at 1 rs a kg, per person a month.
Features of the National Food Security Bill include:
- Legal entitlement to subsidized food grains to be extended to at least 67% of the population with 75% in rural areas and 50% in urban areas.
- 5 kg of food grains per month at Rs.3, Rs.2, and Re.1 per kg. for rice, wheat and coarse grains respectively
- Poorest of the poor household, under the Antodaya Anna Yojana will continue to get 35 kg per month
- The minimum coverage, entitlement and price to remain unchanged until the end of the XII five year plan. The prices of the grains may be revised after a period of 3 years.
- Identification of Eligible Households: There are no specified criteria for the identification of eligible households. The Centre will decide on a state wise coverage of the public distribution system based on the rural and urban population of the state. The State governments shall then identify the eligible households
- Legal entitlements for children: Between the age group of 6 months to 6 years: an age-appropriate meal, free of charge, through the local anganwadi. For children between 6 to 14 years: one free mid-day meal every day (except on school holidays) in all government and government-aided schools, up to Class VIII.For children below six months, “exclusive breastfeeding shall be promoted”. For children who suffer from malnutrition, meals will be provided to them free of charge “through the local anganwadi”.
- Legal entitlements for maternal nutrition: Pregnant women and lactating mothers are entitled to a nutritious “take home ration” of 600 Calories and a maternity benefit of at least Rs 6,000 for six months.
- The eldest woman in the household, 18 years or aboveis the head of the household for the issuance of the ration card.
- Distribution will be done through existing Public Distribution System
- Reform of the Public Distribution System: Chapter V of the Bill states that central and state governments “shall endeavor to progressively undertake” various PDS reforms, including: doorstep delivery of food grains; end-to-end computerization; leveraging “aadhaar” (UID) for unique identification of entitled beneficiaries; full transparency of records; preference to public institutions or bodies in licensing of fair price shops; management of fair price shops by women or their collectives; diversification of commodities distributed under the PDS; full transparency of records; and “introducing schemes such as cash transfer, food coupons or other schemes to the targeted beneficiaries in order to ensure their food grain entitlements” as prescribed by the central government.
- The central government will provide funds to states in case of short supplies of food grains;
- Food Security Allowance by food security allowance in case of non-supply of food grains.
- There will be state- and district-level redress mechanisms
- State Food Commissions will be formed for implementation and monitoring of the provisions of the Act
The centre identified the total food grain requirement to come upto 612.3 lakh tons with the total food subsidy costing the government around Rs.124747 crore. According to the Central Government’s calculations, the added food subsidiary (the existing ones being through the public distribution system) will be 23, 800 crore annually. Under the bill, the Centre will release food grains and allot them to various States. The state run food corporation of India (FCI) shall then transport and distribute the grains to various fair price shops in various villages, districts and cities.
CRITICISM OF THE BILL
- The Main criticism of the bill is the timing at which it was passed. Many claimed that it was a hurried piece of legislation which was not properly discussed, mainly as a political move by the Congress Party before the 2014 general elections. Opposition leaders pointed at the timing at which it was passed and questioned why the bill was not better discussed with state governments, some of which already had a food security act in place, namely Chhattisgarh, Tamil Nadu and Madhya Pradesh.
- Critics also pointed out at the vague term ‘eligible households’ claiming that there was no benchmark which categorised who exactly were to benefit from the new bill, and how the ‘eligible’ households were to be identified. They questionhow the government will identify the beneficiaries. “Who are the poor? Does anyone know how to identify who deserves food subsidy and who doesn’t,” says Bharat Ramaswami, Professor, Planning Unit, Indian Statistical Institute. “Some 90 per cent of our workforce is in the unorganized sector. There is a better chance of inclusion with 67 per cent coverage, but we don’t have the technology for it.”
- State-run public distribution systems shall be used for the purpose of this Act too. The Act also provides for reforms in the public distribution system. Currently, the Public Distribution System suffers greatly because of irregularities and corruption. According to a 2005 Planning commission report, at least half of the subsidised grains released by the government are siphoned off by middlemen and do not reach their intended beneficiaries. Many claim that the subsidised grains end up being sold in the black market instead of the fair price shops. Many question the use of Public Distribution System (PDS), which has failed to provide food security, despite being in place for five decades.
- The bill suggests computerisation as a way to solve the problems of leakages and proposes using the Aadhaar data base to identify prospective beneficiaries. It also proposes full transparency of records, the introduction of cash transfers and diversification of commodities.However, for the entire Aadhaar network to be completely ready it will take a few more years and this will result in delay in the implementation of the scheme. Also the Bill does not specify any time frame within which problems in the PDS has to be solved.
- Many also state that storage and transportation facilities are inadequate to implement a scheme at this level and this will lead to problems of wastage.
- Some economists believe that the bill would hurt the economy by worsening the fiscal deficit, which is already not doing very well. India’s budget deficit increased to 5.2% of gross domestic product in the last financial year.
- A report of the Technical Advisory Committee on Monetary Policy stated that food prices are still elevated and the food security bill will aggravate food price inflation as it will tilt supply towards cereals and away from other farm produce (proteins), which will raise food prices further. Members felt that the government is not addressing the supply side constraints which will cause inflationary pressure. The Indian Ministry of Agriculture’s Commission on Agricultural Costs and Prices warned that enactment of the Bill could be expected to “induce severe imbalance in the production of oilseeds and pulses,” and “…will create demand pressures, which will inevitably spill over to market prices of food grains. Furthermore, the higher food subsidy burden on the budget will raise the fiscal deficit, exacerbating macro level inflationary pressures. The Commission argued further that the Bill would restrict private initiative in agriculture, reduce competition in the marketplace due to government domination of the grain market, shift money from investments in agriculture to subsidies, and continue focus on cereals production when shifts in consumer demand patterns indicate a need to focus more on protein, fruits and vegetables.
In June, 2014, the Centre gave the state’s 3 more months for the implementation of the National Food Security Bill. Food Minister, Ramvilas Paswan made the announcement. So far, Haryana, Rajasthan. Maharashtra, Punjab and Chhattisgarh have fully implemented the Act, while Delhi, Himachal Pradesh, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Bihar and Chandigarh have partially implemented, he said.
The time lapsed since the implementation of the Act is too less to analyze the implementation of the Act. However, a few states have reasonably successful food security measures. The Government of Chhattisgarh has been successfully running a food security scheme in the State.
Although many have criticised the bill and its timings, there are many who support and advocate the bill. Many believe that as a social welfare measure, it is the responsibility of the government to look past economic and monetary investment and invest in human capital. Professor Jean Drèze, who helped in drafting the Bill stated that the bill will help bring some security in people’s lives and make it easier for them to meet their basic needs, protect their health, educate their children, and take risks.
Many advocates also refute the claim that we will have to import food to meet requirements and state that the food production in India is sufficient to meet the needs of the people especially if it is handled fairly and without leakages. They also claim that the additional money that will be spent by the government in food subsidiaries will help meet the demands of an additional 22 percent of the population and that is not a disinvestment in any form. The only hurdle in the way of the bill is the inefficient public distribution system, which can be improved. The inefficient system is not an excuse to deprive people of their basic needs and should be looked into immediately. To point out the possibility of a changed system, the example of Bihar has been citied. The National Sample Survey data for 2011-12 shows that in Bihar, which was the worst performer in food distribution, things have drastically improved. Where the leakage of food grain used to be 90%, 2011 data shows this has now come down to just 20%. This is because the state government of Bihar has started spending on the PDS. In 2004, only 14% of the people of Bihar bought grain through the PDS or from ration shops. Now it is upto 45% .If we look at the same figures for India as a whole, in 2004, just 25% of the people bought from ration shops and now that has shot up to 45%.
These Statistics provide a hopeful future for the public distribution system and proves that food security is, indeed, an achievable dream. The Food security bill provides the people the right to such services as opposed to them viewing these schemes merely as welfare schemes of the government. The food Security bill legislates the people’s right to food in the country. It is a step towards the eradication of malnourishment, hunger and poverty and has the potential to revamp the public distribution system in India.
-This article has been authored and contributed by Surabhi Chatterjee, Research fellow at Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Center for Law, Rights and Constitutional Governance.