A timely consultation on Right to Food Bill was held at Silver Oak I, India Habitat Centre, New Delhi on 13 July, 2010. The Food Security Meet was organized by Care India (http://www.careindia.org/) and it witnessed huge participation from national and international NGOs, activists, academicians, government officials and researchers.
The first speaker Ms. Annie Raja from National Federation of Indian Women spoke at length about the Draft National Food Security Bill (http://www.righttofoodindia.org/data/egom_draft_bill2010.pdf) and the flaws in it. She asked whether availability of rice and wheat via the public distribution system (PDS) is enough to ensure food security. She emphasized on the inclusion of nutrition security and access to safe and clean drinking water in the draft Right to Food Bill of the UPA II government. She informed that the empowered Group of Ministers (eGoM) did not consider nutrition security as the responsibility of the government under the Food Security Bill. Simply passing the Food Security Bill won’t ensure food security for all. The notion of food security has to be linked with livelihood security, she said. She questioned the exact definition of household under the National Rural Employment Guaranty Act (NREGA). She told that when Tsunami struck Tamil Nadu in 2004, it took a long while for the government to step forward. Many of the dalit families lost their habitats and livelihoods. But National Federation of Indian Women provided livelihoods to such households. Under the new Food Security Bill, the allocation per household per month is reduced from 35 kg to 25 kg. If the new Bill becomes an Act, then the price of foodgrains for the below poverty line (BPL) households under the PDS in Kerala would go up from Rs. 1-2 per kg to Rs. 3 per kg. There is no single estimate of poverty in India, which can turn things more complex. Prof. Arjun Sengupta (www.nceus.gov.in) claimed that about 77% of Indian population was stuck below the average per capita expenditure of Rs. 20/- per day. The NC Saxena Committee (constituted by the Rural Development ministry) was asked to recommend criteria for identification of BPL families in rural India. It held the view that 50% of India should be brought under the ambit of the poverty line. The Suresh Tendulkar Committee report submitted in December 09 estimates poverty in India at over 37 per cent (2004-05) and not at 28 per cent as calculated earlier by the Planning Commission.
Ms. Annie Raja pointed out that instead of a ‘garibi rekha’ (poverty line), there must be an ‘amiri rekha’. The creation of the ‘amiri rekha’ would help the government to stop exempting those companies and corporate houses who have earned a good fortune at the expense of poor due to the biased economic policies adopted by the government. There are problems associated with targeting, which include ‘inclusion’ and ‘exclusion’ errors. Universal PDS is the solution. The eGoM is contemplating on replacing the existing PDS with cash transfer and coupon system. But this will have a pervasive effect on the PDS and the people who access it. Land use policies and Special Export Zones (SEZs) policies need to be changed so as to ensure livelihood security and prevent unmindful land acquisition and displacement. Targeting of the PDS has affected the procurement and production of millets. Food security is a big issue. Inflation affects the food security status of the poor and the women. Nearly, 40 percent of Indian women are malnourished.
Shri Balaji Singh told that people go without food despite high food production. While quoting Mahatma Gandhi, he said that poor people see God in food. Access to food, education and health leads to social development. Adequate food and nutrition intake can lead to better labour productivity. Inflation affects poor the most. Some form of accountability measure must be included in the Food Security Bill for better implementation. Shri Balaji Singh mentioned about the ongoing debate surrounding targeting and universalization of the existing PDS. He criticised the current PDS since people are given food, which does not suit their culture and taste. Food must be made available to the people within 24-48 hours after a disaster strikes. There is no planned intervention on the part of the government to ensure food security in the disaster prone regions. The system requires better managerial capability in times of outbreak of disasters.
Smt. Sarala Gopalan explained that as a civil servant she noticed that a programme is considered as good when it is effectively implemented by the government and received well by the public. There have been small-scale efforts made in various parts of Maharastra, including Pune, to ensure food security and to make people aware about the nutritional values of indigenous varieties of millets. She gave examples of various UNICEF-sponsored programmes that aimed at nutritional security of the local communities. She referred to the usefulness of village-level grain banks in states like Orissa and the empowering impact of micro-credit and co-operatives run by women. Food security is a managerial problem. In India, the cost of transportation is too high. When food aid arrives in ports, food distribution does not take place properly due to high cost involved in transportation. Many of the new schemes needs to be converged, Ms. Gopalan added. The present NREGA does not have provisions for constructing local godowns for food storage. Building local godowns will help people during the time of disaster. Access to safe and clean drinking water helps in metabolism and, hence, ensures food security. In China, there was a time when citizens were instructed to boil water before drinking. In rural Haryana, women and men suffer from indigestion due to dearth of vegetables as it is not grown. Consumption of vegetables helps in avoiding constipation. She gave a simple strategy to get clean water. Water when kept in a clean bottle under the sun for 2-3 hours is good for consumption since it is as clean as the water one gets from water purifiers. Managerial arrangements and expertise are required to solve the problem of food insecurity. India can gain from ‘demographic dividend’ if it implements its policies intelligently and youths are included in both policy formulation and implementation.
Shri Ashok Bharti demanded that the definition of food security as defined by the President of India when UPA II came into power needs to be changed. The actual definition of food security is quite broad, Mr. Bharti informed. He asked for identifying those who are dying due to starvation and hunger. It has always been the case that tribals and dalits become victims of hunger and destitution. In Madhya Pradesh, a large part of the population is suffering due to malnutrition. Food security with dignity is must. People must get food with dignity. For this to happen, people should have livelihoods so as to access food. Advertisements on social welfare schemes are benefitting the media industry and the political leaders. The role of youths in ensuring food security has to be discussed. Lessons on food security can be learnt from various nations.
Dr. Kamal Raj talked about empowering the women and better nutritional status of children.
Shri Anoop Kumar Srivastava (National Conference of Dalit Organizations, http://www.nacdor.org/) informed that despite Constitutional provisions, discrimination on the basis of caste, religion and region take place in India. The status of tribal communities and dalits is miserable in terms of food and nutrition security. Scheduled Castes (SCs) and Scheduled Tribes (STs) lag behind the general caste people in terms of literacy levels. Nearly, 36 percent of SCs and 46 percent of STs live below the poverty line. Almost 80-90 percent of the people who died due to starvation are dalits and tribals. The Supreme Court issued an order for 8 different food related schemes in 2001 through which food security can be ensured. Mr. Srivastava also talked about various aspects of food security such as: availability, accessibility, adequacy, equality and quality. He informed that aanganwadi centres are located physically outside the reach of dalit families. Dalits do not get enough information about various food related schemes.
Shri Anoop Kumar Srivastava made the following points regarding the ground level situation of dalits:
Ø Dalits are not aware about their rights
Ø Exclusion of dalits from identification of poverty
Ø Social, economic and political inequality
Ø Discrimination on the basis of gender and caste
Ø Denial of resources and land to poor
Ø Involvement of dalits in the decision-making process is minimal
Ø Domination of upper-caste in the Gram Sabha
Ø Most of the dalits don’t have BPL cards though they are eligible
Ø Ration card dealers keep the cards of the dalits with themselves
Ø Ration shops are out of reach (location is far)
Ø Information on opening up of shops not disseminated to dalits
Ø In the MDMS, dalit children suffer from discrimination
Ø Dalits do not enjoy the pension schemes
There are various measures of poverty in India: NC Saxena-50%; Planning Commission-27%; Tendulkar Committee-37.2%; Arjun Sengupta-77%. The new poverty line as measured by Suresh Tendulkar is Rs. 17 per day per person. But a person cannot live with dignity by earning Rs. 17 per day, said Mr. Srivastava. Offtake from PDS is quite low. If the current PDS is made universal and 35 kg of foodgrain is allocated to each household, then 33-40 percent of the foodgrains need to be bought by the government from the open market. Food Security Act should not be about PDS only. All the essential commodities must be supplied via the ration/ fair price shops like dal (pulses and legumes), cooking oil etc. The PDS should also cover disabled, homeless, single-women etc. The BPL list as prepared by the Ministry of Rural Development should not be used by Ministry of Consumer Affairs, Food & Public Distribution (http://fcamin.nic.in/). The Ministry of Consumer Affairs, Food & Public Distribution must have its own BPL list. Landlessness must be solved in rural India. Effective grievance redressal mechanism must be there in the National Food Security Bill.
Shri Kennedy Dhanabalan (EFICOR, www.eficor.org/) talked about the socio-economic status of Malto—a primitive tribe of Jharkhand. He said that the literacy rate among this tribe is 14 percent and MMR is 8 percent. The Malto tribe has the worst records in human development. Malaria is quite rampant in the area, where the tribe lives. Their food absorption is affected because of unavailability of clean and safe drinking water. The Malto tribe does not have access to electricity & schools, and they suffer at the hands of the government officials, Dhanabalan added.
Smt. Saraswati Rao informed that women’s issues are often neglected by the policy-makers. Women cannot be excluded if one is talking about food security. All the capability-building activities target men and miss women. When it comes to talking about productivity, women are neglected. When it comes to talking about reproductive activities, women are solely targeted. Absorption of nutrition is also related to education level of women. Women are also neglected as farmers. Inter-generational malnutrition is a big challenge before India. We are good at drafting schemes but fail in implementing them. It is essential to improve the farming techniques of women to increase their productivity and income.
Shri Sanjib Hans talked about how poverty contributes to hunger and the poor access to PDS by various social groups. He asked for providing food security during the time of disaster outbreaks. He called for delinking the PDS from the BPL category. He said that access to food is a fundamental human right and demanded for inclusion of social auditing and public hearing in the draft National Food Security Bill.
Dr. Ram Dayal Munda (Member, National Advisory Council, http://nac.nic.in) said that the present Food Security Bill deals with survival level existence. He asked for paying more attention to children and rural women.
Dr. MS Swaminathan (Member, National Advisory Council, http://nac.nic.in), who was the main speaker, informed that food security is a multi-dimensional, multi-faceted theme. The present Bill when becomes an Act would provide entitlement. Accessing food with human dignity is essential. Poor are poor because of lack of assets and skills. The West Bengal Government in the 1970s and 1980s implemented land and tenancy reforms to enable the poor with assets. India has the largest number of poor and hungry people in the world. Presently, we are living in a knowledge based economy. Given the opportunities, we can make ordinary people extra-ordinary. With the advent of Right to Information Act, Right to Employment Act (NREGA), Right to Education, Indian democracy is moving towards a right-based approach to development, Swaminathan added. Agricultural production, procurement (as well as distribution) and preservation are important aspects of food security. Every 4th farmer in the world is an Indian. Indians are producers-consumers. In the US, 2 percent produces and 98 percent consume. Community kitchens and community grain banks are essential to ensure food security. Getting the priorities right is very important, when it comes to choosing a policy and getting programmes implemented. When we talk about a food security law, we have to think about food availability. India cannot rely on importing food grains to ensure food security when the new law is enacted. Food security law cannot rely on imports. In India, the producers of food grains (farmers/ peasants) are malnourished and their income levels are low. Mahila Kisan Shasaktikaran Yojana is a new scheme in which the government recognizes women as farmers. Child care crèches are important for working mothers and their babies. The works done under NREGA are meant for achieving water security. The government must give some form of recognition or award to group of NREGA workers every year. The real beneficiaries are those who received the Sixth Pay Commission and not the NREGA workers. Hence, constituting some form of recognition/ award for the NREGA workers is essential as they are doing back-breaking work. Dr. MS Swaminathan also commented on Seeds Bill and Genetically Modified Plants.
The suggestions pertaining to the draft National Food Security Bill made during the group consultations were presented to the NAC members who promised to bring them before the government.