Friday, August 21, 2009

Key facts about National Food Security Act, 2009

Promise of the United Progressive Alliance-II (2009-****):
* Seeing the popularity of the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS), which helped the Congress to win the 2009 Parliamentary elections, the newly constituted Government has thought of bringing the Food Security Act within the first 100 days of its stay in the office for the second time.
* President Pratibha Patil on June 4, 2009 said that a National Food Security Act would be formulated whereby each below poverty line (BPL) family would be entitled by law to get 25 kg of rice or wheat per month at Rs 3/- per kg, a promise made by the Congress before general elections 2009. Many would agree that the proposal for a Food Security Bill has come at the right point of time when the world has already witnessed food crisis in 2008 that pushed millions of people to the brink of poverty and undernutrition.
* A concept note on the National Food Security Act was made available on 4 June, 2009 by the Ministry of Consumer Affairs, Food and Public Distribution. The concept note on National Food Security Act promises to ensure food security (by supplying a certain minimum quality of rice, wheat and coarse cereals) to the below poverty line (BPL) population residing in rural and urban areas. The number of BPL households would be fixed by the Central Government based on the recent poverty estimates of the Planning Commission (presently of 2004-05). As against the accepted number of 6.52 crore BPL cards, there exists 10.68 crore BPL cards by end of March, 2009. The above poverty line (APL) population will be excluded from the targeted public distribution system (TPDS) under the new Food Security Act. Based on the recent poverty estimates (2004-05) by Planning Commission, the number of BPL households will come down from 6.52 crore to 5.91 crore and the number of APL households will increase from 11.52 crore to 15.84 crore. Only 25 kg of foodgrains to each BPL household would be supplied at subsidized rates under the new law. The validity of the new BPL ration cards issued, based on the recent poverty estimates of the Planning Commission (2004-05), would be for 5 years, after which they will automatically expire. Multiplicity of food schemes would be abandoned under the new law, which means discontinuation of a number of food and nutrition related schemes. Presently the Government provides 277 lakh tonnes of foodgrains for below poverty line (BPL) and Antodaya Anna Yojana (AAY) categories, with a subsidy amounting to Rs. 37,000 crore. Under the new Act, the government would provide 251 lakh tons of foodgrains for BPL and AAY categories, with subsidy amounting to Rs. 40,380 crore (if 25 kg of rice or wheat per month is supplied to each BPL household at Rs 3/- a kg). Computerisation of TPDS would take place along with setting up of village grain banks and food security tribunals, according to the concept note.
* The Budget Speech delivered by Minister of Finance Shri Pranab Mukherjee on 6 July, 2009 which stated that the United Progressive Alliance government was preparing a National Food Security Bill, confirmed that the Congress Party will deliver on its election promise of providing 25 kg of foodgrains per month, at Rs 3/- per kg, to every poor family
* A Group of Ministers was formed on 13 July, 2009 to examine the proposed National Food Security Act. The members of the group are: Pranab Mukherjee, Sharad Pawar, AK Anthony, P Chidambaram, Mamata Banerji, Dayanidhi Maran, Anand Sharma and CP Joshi (Dr. Montek Singh Ahluwalia, Planning Commission, is a special invitee)

Key features of the proposed Right to Food Act prepared by Prof. Jean Dreze and his team:
* The Right to Food Act, which has been prepared by a team comprising of Prof. Jean Dreze, Harsh Mander, Biraj Patnaik, Reetika Khera and Dipa Sinha and was released on 24 June, 2009 proposes to consolidate, in law, entitlements that are currently in place through eight food and nutrition-related schemes. Most of these entitlements are already justifiable, based on Supreme Court orders in the “Right to Food” case, according to the authors of the proposed Act
* Below Poverty Line (BPL) households: All BPL households shall be entitled to 35 kg of foodgrain each month, at Rs 3/kg for rice and Rs 2/kg for wheat under the Public Distribution System. Each nuclear family shall be treated as a separate household. A new methodology for the BPL Census is being proposed, based on simple, transparent and verifiable criteria. For instance, in rural areas any household that meets any two simple inclusion criteria (such as landlessness and being SC/ST) shall be entitled to a BPL Card. Households meeting any of six “exclusion criteria” will not be entitled to BPL cards. Extensive transparency safeguards will also be introduced in the Public Distribution System (PDS)
* The proposed Act demands for continuation of existing food related schemes such as: Integrated Child Development Services, Mid-Day Meal Scheme, Public Distribution System, Antyodaya, National Maternity Benefit Scheme/ Janani Suraksha Yojana, National Social Assistance Programme, including Indira Gandhi National Old Age Pension Scheme, Indira Gandhi National Widow Pension Scheme and Indira Gandhi National Disability Pension Scheme, National Family Benefit Scheme, and Rajiv Gandhi National Crèche Scheme. All the provisions in various such schemes have been elaborately discussed in the proposed Act
* The proposed Act has asked for severe penalties against individuals and organizations/ companies who are held responsible for violation of food safety norms and standards that affects the public. It has demanded for severe punishment to those who push for baby food instead of breast milk
* The draft Right to Food Act has safeguards against encroachments by corporate lobbies and private contractors in food and nutrition related schemes

Demands for food entitlements by the civil society (released on 22 July, available at:
* The Act must hold the government accountable to ensure that no man, women or child sleeps hungry or is malnourished.
* The Act must place an obligation on the government to encourage food production through sustainable and equitable means, and ensure adequate food availability in all locations at all times.
* The Act must incorporate and consolidate all entitlements currently existing under Supreme Court orders (Annexure 1) and existing schemes, especially:
# Hot, cooked, nutritious mid-day meals in all government and government-assisted schools.
# Provision of all ICDS services to all children below the age of six years.
# Antyodaya entitlements as a matter of right for “priority groups”.

* The Act must also create new entitlements for those who are excluded from existing schemes, including out-of-school children, the elderly and the infirm in need of daily care, migrant workers and their families, bonded labour families, the homeless, and the urban poor.
* The Act must not abridge but only expand other entitlements such as old age pensions, maternity entitlements and work entitlements under NREGA.
* The right to food of children in the age group of 0-6 month’s must be ensured through services to the mother, including support at birth; skilled counselling especially to promote breast feeding; maternity entitlements; and crèche facilities at the work place.
* The Act must create an obligation for governments to prevent and address chronic starvation, and reach food pro-actively to persons threatened with starvation.
* The Act must create provisions for governments to deal adequately with natural and human-made disasters and internal displacement, including by doubling all food entitlements for a period of at least one year in affected areas; and removing upper limits to person days of employment in NREGA.
* All residents of the country, excepting possible for categories specially excluded because of their wealth, must be covered by the Public Distribution System, with at least 35 kgs of cereals per household (or 7 kgs per person) per month at Rs. 3/- per kg for rice and Rs. 2/- per kg for wheat. Coarse grains should be made available through the PDS at subsidised rates, wherever people prefer these. In addition, extra provisions of subsidised oil and pulses should be made.
* Women must be regarded as heads of the households for all food-related matters such as the distribution of ration cards.
* The Act must seek to eliminate all social discrimination in food-related matters, including discrimination against Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes, Most Backward Classes and minorities.
* Cash transfers must not replace food transfers under any nutrition-related scheme.
* The Act must include safeguards against the invasion of corporate interests and private contractors in food policy and nutrition-related schemes, especially where they affect food safety and child nutrition. In particular no GM food and hazardous or useless additives must be allowed in public nutrition programmes. Governments must not enter into any partnerships with the private sector where there is a conflict of interests.
* The Act must include strong, in-built independent institutions for accountability along with time-bound, grievance redressal provisions (including provisions for criminal prosecution), mandatory penalties for any violation of the Act and compensation for those whose entitlements have been denied. In particular, the Gram Sabha must have effective powers for grievance redressal and monitoring of food-related schemes.
* All programmes of food entitlements must have strong in-built transparency mechanisms, and mandatory requirements of social audit.
* Within the existing PDS system, the Act must provide for mandatory reforms such as de-privatisation of PDS shops, preferably to women’s groups, with sufficient capital and commissions for new owners; direct door step delivery of food items to the PDS shop; and computerisation, along with other measures for transparency.
* The Act must specify that no laws or policy shall be passed that adversely impact the enabling environment for the right to food.

Apprehensions about the new National Food Security Act:
* If made into a law, the draft Food Security Bill would reduce the allocation for a below poverty line (BPL) household (e.g. in the case of Antodaya Anna Yojana) from 35 kg of rice/ wheat per month to 25 kg of rice/ wheat per month. This would appear contradictory to many who expected the Bill to be a benign effort of the UPA-II (2009-****) to ensure food security.
* Instead of better implementation of the already existing schemes such as the Targeted Public Distribution System (TPDS), Antodaya Anna Yojana (AAY), Integrated Child Development Scheme (ICDS), Mid Day Meal Scheme (MDMS) etc., the Food Security law might make things unduly worse and unnecessarily complicated. A cynical question here would be: Is the Food Security Bill going to replace all such food related schemes that existed before its enactment?
* If the Bill is about ensuring food security, how can it leave those who may not fall below the poverty line but are already exposed to food insecurity? The Rome Declaration (1996) made during the World Food Summit states that ‘food security is achieved when all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs and food preferences for an active life’. Food security is about nutrition security too. If that is the case, the Food Security Bill has to rethink about the quality of foodgrains supplied and distributed. The Food Security Bill must also aim at providing fortified foodgrains along with pulses, edible oils, salt and essential spices. A balanced diet would ensure both food and nutrition security. The basket of commodities, which would be available to the consumers, should reflect local tastes and preferences and must include locally grown cereals and legumes.
* If targeting of BPL households is done under the Food Security Bill, then that would lead to inclusion (including the non-poor) and exclusion (excluding the poor) errors. It would be wiser to go for universalization (rather than targeting) as was recommended by the Committee on Long Term Grain Policy under the chairmanship of Prof. Abhijit Sen (2000-02).
* Is India ready to rely exclusively upon biotechnology and genetic engineering for increasing its agricultural production so as to ensure food security for all? Much of debates have already taken place on the usefulness and pitfalls of GMOs.
* The World Development Report 2008-Agriculture for Development, which has been brought out by the World Bank mentions that India presently faces the problem of depleting ground water level that makes agriculture unsustainable and poses risk to environment. If rice is one of the foodgrains that is going to be supplied when the Food Security Act comes into being, then more and more farmers would go for cultivation of rice by looking at the price incentives offered by the Government. In the Punjab region, overexploitation of groundwater takes place thanks to the huge subsidies given on electricity. Moreover, minimum support prices (MSP) for rice increase the financial attractiveness of rice relative to less water-intensive crops, which makes depletion of ground water table more obvious.
* There are apprehensions that sustainability of Food Security law would be at peril if India faces lower agricultural production due to poor harvest, drought etc. in the future. Is India ready to rely upon food imports and food aid to ensure right to food at all cost? At present, the country has been facing shortage in south-west monsoon rainfall that might affect agricultural production and prices of commodities.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

“Right to Food: A Dialogue with Amartya Sen”

A face-to-face interaction of Prof. Amartya Sen with reporters and journalists from media on the issues related to the newly drafted National Food Security Bill took place at the Press Club of India, New Delhi on 8 August, 2009 (11.00 a.m.-12.30 p.m.). Prof. Yogendra Yadav from the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS, chaired the session. He explained to the media persons present about the importance of Right to Food. He informed that various individuals and organizations are today waiting for a strong and vibrant Right to Food Act. While introducing Prof. Amartya Sen, he said that the Nobel laureate has played a crucial role in the Economics discipline by reintroducing Philosophy and Ethics. While introducing the rest of the speakers i.e. Ms. Kavita Srivastava, Mr. Harsh Mander and Prof. Jean Dreze, he said that a time would come after 15-20 years, when people would look back at history to find those who talked about human development and social justice instead of just higher growth rate of gross domestic product (GDP).

The first speaker Ms. Kavita Srivastava, an activist from People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL, spoke at length about the Right to Food Campaign (, which is a network of 12 large national and regional networks and groups. It came into being when the PUCL filed a writ petition with the Supreme Court of India in the year 2001 regarding starvation deaths that took place in Rajasthan despite growing stocks of foodgrain in Food Corporation of India’s (FCI) godowns. The Right to Food campaign has been successful in bringing out the Antodaya scheme and the setting up of the Supreme Court Commissioner on Right to Food ( Now, the Anganwadis have been made universal in terms of reach out. Earlier, the Supreme Court has also issued orders to the various state governments in order to make the Mid Day Meal Scheme (MDMS) workable and mandatory. She said it was nice to find that 2009 Parliamentary elections have been fought in the country on the issue of enacting the Right to Food Act. The commitment to enact the Food Security Bill was reiterated by the President of India on 4 June, 2009. The draft National Food Security Bill is yet to be displayed at the website of the Ministry of Consumer Affairs, Food and Public Distribution ( However, a concept note has already been prepared by the Department of Food and Public Distribution. A Group of Ministers (GoM) comprising of leaders like Pranab Mukherjee, Ms. Mamta Banerji, C.P. Joshi, A.K. Anthony, Sharad Pawar etc. are looking at the draft for further modifications. Speaking on the newly proposed Bill, she said that food security requires food availability, social access etc. Food production needs to be sustainable in nature. There should be direct food entitlements and protection of the enabling environment. The Right to Food Bill should have safeguards to prevent encroachments by private contractors and corporate lobbies. The Mid Day Meal Scheme (MDMS) should provide hot cooked meal instead of ready-to-eat food since the provision of the latter would encourage the entry of private contractors to provide the same in schools. There should be an independent authority for ensuring accountability and grievance redressal, Ms. Srivastava demanded. Women must be regarded as the heads of the households under the National Food Security Bill. Coarse grains must be made available through the PDS at subsidized rates. She informed that a “freelance draft” of the Right to Food Act, dated 24, June 2009 and circulated for discussion is available at

Mr. Harsh Mander, who hailed from Supreme Court Commissioner on Right to Food said that India has been able to prevent famines but widespread hunger still persists. As a part of the Supreme Court Commissioner on Right to Food, he looks at various issues related to hunger and malnutrition. Although India has sufficient food to feed every mouth, there is widespread hunger and malnutrition. Despite being a democracy, India has been unable to ensure Right to Food to All till now. There are barriers created by caste, gender, age, etc. within the community and the household. There is the utter need for public provision of food. Every person needs to be reached out to. The National Food Security Act must include out-of-school children, single women, the elderly and the infirm in need of daily care, migrant workers and their families, bonded labour families, the homeless and the urban poor. People should have access to food along with dignity. He mentioned about the success of Brazil’s Zero Hunger Project. Eliminating hunger is Brazilian President Lula da Silva's top priority.

Prof. Jean Dreze mentioned that Right to Food must be discussed in the context of nutrition. There is a need to look at the National Family Health Survey-III, which was conducted in the year 2005-06. If one looks at child malnutrition, then one would find that percentage of children (under 3 years) who are underweight declined marginally from 47.0 during NFHS-II to 45.9 during NFHS-III at the national level. The Supreme Court orders on Mid Day Meal Scheme (MDMS) and Right to Food have taken place in the recent years. The MDMS has been successful in many of the states. The National Rural Employment Guaranty Scheme (NREGS) is able to ensure food security, he said. The NREG Act is complementary to the Right to Food. Right to Food can ensure entitlements. The 2009 Parliamentary elections have made some serious promises. But one may doubt that the Government is re-packaging some existing schemes. Simple interventions won’t provide the desired results. Systematic intervention is required. A working group comprising of Prof. Dreze, Mr. Mander and a few others is preparing an alternative National Food Security Bill. He emphasized on the 3 pillars of food security: a. Programmes for Social Assistance; b. A set of child nutrition programmes (including MDMS and Integrated Child Development Scheme-ICDS) that supports breast feeding too; and c. An universal Public Distribution System (PDS) that covers everybody.

While addressing the media persons, Prof. Amartya Sen expressed his concerns over the widespread prevalence of hunger and undernourishment in the world in general and in India in particular. There are problems of inclusion and exclusion errors while targeting the below poverty line (BPL) population. Some of the African countries are performing better than India in reducing the levels of malnutrition. India has escaped the global economic crisis and it is good to find that the Government has not dismantled all the schemes and programmes. He said that there was a time when the country was terminated by communal riots and violence, which is mentioned in his newly released book titled: The Idea of Justice. Public scrutiny and action is must for the proper functioning of the Right to Food Act, he said. There is need for good provisions within the Act. One of the problems of undernourishment is that it is invisible. Poverty and food insecurity exists due to lack of access to gainful employment, education and health care. Without food, children cannot perform well in their classrooms. There are complementarities between hunger and education. Accountability of primary school teachers is essential. There is a need for a range of interventions, to address different aspects of the problem, he argued. Programmes such as NREGA, ICDS and the Public Distribution System (PDS) have much to contribute, but no single programme is the panacea – “we need them all,” he said. Professor Sen highlighted the complementarity between different interventions, and the correlation between malnutrition, poor health, illiteracy, and other deprivations. He explained life cycle approach to inter-generational malnutrition, where nutritional status of mothers determines the nutritional and health status of the children (even when they grow up). He informed about the work of his then student and now Prof. S.R. Osmani, who has worked on economics of health. He mentioned about the World Health Organization’s (WHO) Commission on Social Determinants of Health. He asked not to go for premature privatization of the health system. The extent of gender inequality is quite large, he said. Among other neglected aspects of the nutrition situation, Professor Sen highlighted the lack of health care. He strongly criticized India’s “ghastly premature privatization” of health care. Asked about his views on “targeting versus universalization” of the PDS, Professor Sen said that there were strong arguments for universalization. For instance, a universal system is less divisive, and helps to create a strong public demand for quality services. A targeted system, on the other hand, always involves exclusion errors. These arguments for universalization are “not dismissible”, he said, but may need to be weighed against the possible costs. The universal PDS allows for better public provision because even the better-off groups with more political voice have a stake in ensuring it works well.

During the question and answer (Q&A) session, when Prof. Sen was asked about the usefulness of cash vouchers, he said that there are limitations pertaining to the voucher system since it can neither stop corruption nor prevent gender inequality. He found merit in the universal Public Distribution System (PDS). When questioned on privatization, he said that privatization of the Indian Airlines/ Air India is a different thing than allowing private contractors to supply ready-to-eat food at schools. Things must be judged within a particular context. The success of the Integrated Child Development Scheme (ICDS) is extremely important.

Prof. Dreze later took the questions posed by the reporters after the departure of Prof. Sen. When asked what would be the single most important change that can make the PDS work better, Prof. Dreze said that a range of interventions are required to bring about the necessary changes. The present PDS is costlier because of the way foodgrain is procured and sold at the national level. Instead a system that cater to local people’s production and consumption desire must be welcomed. When questioned about the provision of food safety within the proposed Right to Food Bill, he said that food safety has been mentioned in the preamble of the Bill. However, every clause pertaining to the Food Safety and Standards Act, 2006 could not be included in the Right to Food Bill. The Bill has provisions to disallow invasion by the corporate lobbies and the private contractors. Mr. Harsh Mander said that women must be seen as individuals having rights and their nutritional status needs to be enhanced. Since land acquisitions in the past have been troublesome and deprived people, there should be laws enacted that protect people’s access to land, water and natural resources to ensure livelihood security, said Ms. Kavita Srivastava during the Q&A session.

(Partially, based on the minutes of the event written by Shambhu Ghatak and Reetika Khera)