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November 28, 2014

The Anatomy of the National Food Security Act

Food Security in India

Notoriously enough, for the world’s largest democracy, India has an unenviable distinction of being home to the largest number of hungry and malnourished people in the world. According to a World Bank report released earlier this year, India accounts for one-third of the global poor. Despite multiple schemes run by various ministries of the Indian government targeting the impoverished section of the society, including the flagship Public Distribution System (PDS), containing hunger in a billion plus population remains a distant dream.

The Indian Parliament, on September 2 passed the National Food Security Bill. The Government of India had introduced an amended Food Security Bill in the lower house of Parliament. The new law endeavors to provide highly subsidised food grains to two-thirds of India’s population as a right. According to estimates, the new law would provide subsidised food grain to 75% of India’s estimated 833 million rural population and 50% of an estimated 377 million urban population.

While the broader aim of the new law is to alleviate chronic hunger and poverty in India, the primary objective of the law is to guarantee cheap food grain to nearly 70% of India’s 1.2 billion people. Under the programme, beneficiaries can get a total of five kilograms of subsidised rice, wheat and other grains per month. The food grains can be bought at prices ranging from INR 1 to INR 3 a kilogram compared to the market rates of INR 20 to INR 25.

The new act clearly stipulates responsibilities of the Centre and states. While the Central government will be responsible for transporting food grains to the central depots in each state, it will be the responsibility of the state government to ensure the last mile delivery which would include transporting food grains from the state depots to the fair price shops.

The new law also specifies that the Centre will provide states with funds if there is a short supply of foodgrains. This money would then be passed on the end-beneficiaries. The Centre will also assist the state governments in helping the latter to meet their expenditure on transportation and handling of food grains.

Under the existing public distribution programme, subsidised foodgrain is provided to individuals thriving below the benchmark poverty line, fixed at INR 33 a day in urban areas and INR 27 a day in rural areas.

It is appalling to see that even after 66 years of independence India has failed to come up with an effective food distribution system to deliver food to its 1.2 billion people. Instead of making food grains accessible to citizens marked as Below Poverty Line (BPL), the PDS has, in fact, become a channel to squander tonnes of food grains stocked by the government machinery. The ration shops run under the PDS not only gained notoriety for not delivering to the lowest rung of beneficiaries but have also been instrumental in the proliferation of black-marketing of food grains. Given such a dismal record in the execution of a scheme targeted towards the hungry, one cannot help but be skeptical of the results which could be delivered by the National Food Security Act, 2013.

Though the newly passed act allows for reforms to the PDS with the technological interventions like introducing cash transfers and food coupons for ensuring foodgrain entitlements for beneficiaries, there has been criminal waste of food grains meant for the public distribution system in the past, and the governments both at the central and state levels have failed in effective storage of food grains. Despite the presence of various agencies like the Central Warehousing Corporation and Food Corporation of India, we have failed in ensuring the safety of our procured food. The new law will also make use of the Aadhaar card for identifying beneficiaries and for the delivery of foodgrains to the ration outlets.

Food security analysts have criticised the Act terming it as a populist measure of the ruling Congress Party ahead of the general elections this year. Experts have raised questions over the efficacy in the running of the distribution system. Therefore, adding new schemes such as these to the existing lot is certainly not going to make it any better for the hungry people, nor a mere tinkering of the approach will help. Replacing the ration cards for the PDS allocations with food stamps is one such ambiguous initiative. If we persist with such borrowed ideas we would not be able to ensure food security to the citizens.

According to Policy Analyst, Devinder Sharma, who is a strong supporter of the rights-based approach to fight hunger, the new act is just another piece of legislation that enshrines Right to Food as the basic human right. Sharma feels that this act is not going to make any difference to those who live in hunger and penury, and to the millions who are added to this dreaded list every year. Sharma feels that the Right to Food can never be ensured on paper by enacting a rights-based approach.

In his article, Food Security bill: Why it is an opportunity lost, Sharma underlines hunger as an outcome of wrong policies, and asserts that unless there is any effort to accept the flaws and rectify them, the system will continue to fail to deliver. Sharma quotes some 22 government-run programmes to fight hunger and to provide food and nutritional security. Some of these programmes include Mid-day Meal Scheme, National Food Security Mission, Antyodaya Anna Yojna and Annapoorna Yojna.

Sharma advocates that the new law could have been designed in a manner that aims to remove hunger once for all rather than keeping a majority of population dependent on food doles forever.

Food security analysts have criticised the Food Security Act terming it as a populist measure of the ruling Congress Party ahead of the general elections this year. Experts have raised questions over the efficacy in the running of the distribution system.

However, the nutritional challenges of the people of India can not possibly be met without the marriage of agriculture and nutrition. Unfortunately, the food security act does not ensure procurement of food grains at the local level for feeding into various government schemes including the PDS and the Mid-day Meal Scheme.

Professor MS Swaminathan, the man behind Green Revolution that ushered in food security for the country during the 1970s, believes that inclusive agriculture is the key to winning the fight against hunger and malnutrition. In an interview to me in New Delhi last year, Dr Swaminathan mentioned that food is a political weapon, and added that food sufficiency was the basis of national independence.

Explaining how India’s food security law would be equally beneficial for the farming community as well as the consumers, the 88-year-old scientist said that just as the Right to Information Act is implemented with the files, the Right to Food Act cannot be implemented without the help of farmers. Farmers would produce more only when there is assured marketing. “The food security bill which will require 65 million tones is one good method of ensuring that the farmers produce will be purchased at the minimum support price. Thus food security bill will encourage farming.  The other important thing is that the small and marginal farmers who form the majority will have double benefits as they can sell their own produce at a remunerative price and, at the same time, maintain the family’s food security,” Swaminathan said. Calling the Food Security Act a much awaited decision, Swaminathan chose not to criticise the act. The criticism is generally based on the premise that the country was ill-placed to afford it. He said, “If the country cannot afford food, what else it can?”

The UPA government has been criticised for the fact that it failed to strengthen the PDS, which is said to be the main instrument of delivery for the Food Security Act. The act, according to critics, also fails to cater to the nutrition deficiency as it remains silent on the issue of including protein-rich pulses in PDS.

The big question that remains is to what extent this act is going to address the problems of growing hunger and malnutrition in India? With each passing day, food prices are increasingly going beyond the reach of the common people. Despite this runaway inflation there has been no policy framework for increasing the production of pulses which have traditionally been the main source of proteins for the majority of Indians and an important component of their daily diet.

While there has been no dearth of schemes purportedly catering to the needs of nutritional demands of the poor, one wonders how one more addition to that list would make a difference to the existing scenario.

Without ensuring policies for the encouragement of the kind of food grains which adds value to a diet, it would be difficult for the dispensing authorities to do justice to the idea behind the Food Security Act. The fundamental questions related to agriculture still remained unanswered to a large extent. With land holdings becoming smaller every year, farmers are increasing looking beyond the cultivation of wheat, rice and pulses.

It should not surprise us to see that most of the farmers who till recently were adding to the food-grain basket now themselves depend on the market for their requirements of wheat and rice. With energy and water becoming scarce commodities to cater to the burgeoning demand by the agricultural sector, is the second most populous nation of the world ready for the challenging task of feeding its teeming millions?

India has long been known for legislating populist schemes to appeal to the neglected sections of the society. But, experience shows that most of these schemes have just provided fodder for more such schemes, even as the basic challenges remain unaddressed. The promises made by the UPA government for combating malnutrition and food security have fallen flat during its rule with the unforeseen rise in price of basic food items. The hapless Indian voter find themselves at crossroads again with this promising piece of legislation adding to their dilemma over the choice of governments.

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