A politician talking about food security in India is a contradiction in terms if you come to think about it. On one hand we have the teeming masses of the poor and the emaciated, for whom the availability of a single meal is the opportunity of a lifetime; and on the other the well-fed representatives of the ‘people’ who roll about in their luxury vehicles on clear roads lined with policemen, while the general populace is forced to wait at the sidelines as I have, on numerous painful occasions. The right to food is one of the most fundamental rights of man, the deprivation of which robs us of our health, our dignity and eventually, our life.
Before delving into the necessity of a law, we need to first define food security. In its most essential terms it is the easy availability of, accessibility to and absorption of food by each and every individual. In aggregate, over one-fifths of our population suffers from chronic hunger. There are a number of reasons for food insecurity in our country primarily inequitable foodgrain production in states, cost ineffectiveness and marginal impact of foodgrain distribution systems and demand deflation that accompanies a lowering of agrarian incomes.
The Government of India laid forth the National Food Security Bill in parliament on 22nd March 2013. At its most primal level, it entitles persons belonging to ‘priority households’ 5 kilograms of foodgrains per person per month at subsidized prices and households that come under the Antayodaya Anna Yojna 35 kilograms of foodgrains per household per month. Both these come under the purview of ‘eligible households’ whose combined coverage extends up to 75% of the rural and 50% of the urban population. It also goes on to illustrate several schemes for providing nutritious meals to pregnant and lactating women and children in two different age groups of six months to six years and six years to fourteen years respectively.
Prima facie, to a layperson like me, it seems that a commendable job has been done by the drafting of this bill. But once you start asking the right questions, anomalies surface. For instance, Sushil Kumar Modi, Deputy Chief Minister and Finance Minister of Bihar protests against the unilateral nature of the bill. He says that the Centre has preemptively arrogated to itself the task of fixing the criteria for potential beneficiaries and the framework for the implementation of the measure in states. This has put many state governments in the unenviable position of meeting costs to provide food security to all their citizens. He expostulates that the Centre must take on itself the cost the providing subsidies under this Bill.
Further, the logistics must be taken under consideration. It is nigh on impossible for the Food Corporation of India to bear the burden of acquiring, storing, and distributing foodgrains centrally while it is already suffering through a period of gross mismanagement of stocks.
Not everybody is against the bill. What they’re against is the fact that the government wishes to hurry it in the form of an ordinance without adequately discussing it in Parliament. This may be due to the fact that their current image is in shambles with scam after scam being unearthed last year and the impending general elections looming over the horizon. Sharad Pawar, Union Agriculture Minister, is in favour of approving the bill, albeit through discussions in the highest forum of our nation; the Parliament.
Therefore we come to the real question; this bill has been pending in Parliament for a very long time now without much discussion. Is the government really that depraved as to push it through a year before the elections? Nobody will see this as reform as all the previous reforms of bringing FDI in retail which predicted the winds of change have fallen flat. All I can hope for is that if this bill comes through, it provides a modicum of solace and relief to those who are actually in need of it. Not the creamy layer on top of the cappuccino but the real deal.