As many as 46 per cent of the malnourished children of the world—of whom at least 75,000 die every month—are in India. Another alarming official statistic—36 per cent of Indians live on less than Rs 20 a day. One would think figures like this would act as a reality check for a government that proudly chants the aam admi mantra. But they haven’t.
The empowered group of ministers (GoM), chaired by Union finance minister Pranab Mukherjee, has okayed a watered-down draft of the National Food Security Bill, 2011, clearly pointing to the fact that malnourished children and the poor are not a priority with this economic reforms-obsessed government. Also, the draft is at variance with what the National Advisory Council (NAC), led by Congress president Sonia Gandhi, has recommended. Whatever suggestions the NAC made in its July 2 proposal have been toned down by the Union food ministry in the draft it forwarded for the GoM’s consideration.
For starters, the vital preamble of the NAC’s version of the National Food Security Bill has been done away with. The preamble stated that the purpose of the bill was to provide all citizens of the country the right to food as an inviolable and enforceable right. Then, many definitions in the NAC draft, which would have provided clarity on who would benefit from food cover, have been deleted in the government draft.
Among the many omissions in the government draft are the definitions of a child, of malnutrition and of severe child malnutrition. It excludes the special entitlements NAC recommended for households headed by women. The food ministry has also reduced the NAC-recommended entitlement for general households from 4 kg of grain to 3 kg. The crucial grievance redress mechanism in the draft too has been omitted.
Worse, by empowering the Centre to modify or amend the essential entitlements by notification, the government draft makes a significant deviation from the NAC draft, which provided that the prices at which priority households would get their entitlements would not be revised upwards for at least 10 years from the notification of the Act.
M.S. Swaminathan, a food expert and father of the green revolution, is of the view that the government should get its priorities right. “Food security should be our No. 1 concern. It is our national responsibility to assure the people a healthy, nutritious life and it’s our fundamental obligation to provide for the physical, social and economic access to a balanced diet,” he says. Swaminathan also points out that the Food Security Bill would be the most important legislation dealing with the basic issues of life and dignity—the legislation could have been the means to this end, he says.
What has really derailed the NAC’s efforts to come up with an effective food security net for those who need it most is the government claim that a very large amount is required for its implementation. The economic factor is often cited to stall important social legislations. It is estimated that it would cost the government Rs 20,000-40,000 crore in annual subsidies to implement the Act.
UPA-II has often stalled vital social reforms by citing high costs. It says food security will cost about Rs 40,000 crore.
“The food ministry has made a dog’s breakfast of the National Food Security Bill. It is better not to enact a law than have this draft legislated. A section on PDS reforms which begins with the dismantling of the PDS by replacing it with cash transfers shows the non-serious attitude of the food ministry. It has succumbed to external pressures from the Planning Commission and the PMO,” says Biraj Patnaik, principal advisor to the Supreme Court commissioners on the right to food. Adds NAC member N.C. Saxena: “There is considerable concern on reducing the security cover for the poor from 90 per cent to 75 per cent. One hopes these issues will get debated in Parliament.”
But Saxena believes the government has at least taken the first step towards food security. While some see in this a small opening for a larger debate, there are others who think it’s time for the government to show where its priorities lie. Attempts to dilute the RTI Act and the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) forced Parliament to step in. One can only hope that people’s representatives might yet again rise to the occasion and stand up for the right to food for the country’s poor.