The four R’s of the UPA namely, Right to Food Security, Right to Education, Right to Banking (Micro finance and credit) and Right to Information all sounded on high notes but slowly receded into the background. However, the food security bill is one area where there is absolutely no room for error as it would amount to playing with people’s lives.
I belonging to the affluent section of society was abysmally unaware of India’s reality and like all educated, urban, ignorant Indians loved boasting that India will soon enter the elite developed world. That was before I had seen the real India. While I was travelling the length and breadth of Madhya Pradesh, I passed from Bhind and Morena on my way to Shivpuri. On the way, there is a forest belt called Jora- Sabalgarh. There I met some tribals who told me they took turns to eat as they couldn’t afford to eat everyday. One family member would eat and then his turn would come after two days. These are some of the people who would need the benefits of the Food Security Bill.
Let’s examine the Food Security Bill to see what it offers.
|Cost sharing:Centre to provide states with free food grains including costs of storage and transport; and administrative expenses of a minimum of 6%. All other costs to be shared with centre bearing 70% of the cost.||Right to Food Security:1) All people to get food security from pregnancy to old age.2) Pregnant women to get nutritious meals free of charge till 6 months after pregnancy from anganwadis and Rs. 1000 maternity benefits for six months and support for breastfeeding.||Food for children:For entire year for 0-3 age group and for at least 300 days in a year for 0-6 yrs;Supplementary nutrition, health check-ups, referral services, growth monitoring and promotion and pre-school education.||Midday meal:Children to get freshly cooked nutritious meals everyday in schools except holidays; schools to provide clean drinking water.Any child below age 14 to get food from anganwadi or school, no denial to any child whatsoever on any ground; provision for support to malnutrition children.|
|Special Groups:All destitute people, homeless to get one free meal each day; migrants also to get in whichever locations they are; in times of emergency and disaster subsidy grains to be provided for one year; 200 days of wage employment or income if employment is not available or family members not fit to work.||Right of persons living in starvation:Provision for immediate relief from starvation; meals twice a day free of charge; investigation of starvation death regardless of postmortem report and relief to family even if he/she was not the bread winner||Entitlement(General & Priority households):46% of all rural households to be priority and 75% of all rural households entitled to get subsidy grains; similarly 28% of all urban households as priority and 50% of all urban households entitled to subsidy grains.||Rates:Priority Households, a minimum of 7 kg of food grains per person per month, Rice – Rs 3/kg; Wheat Rs 2/kg and Millets- Rs 1/kg at 2011-11 rates, which will not be revised upward for a minimum period of 10 years (Single member households to get 14kg).General Households- 4 kg at 50% of MSP for the said crops. (Single member households to get 8 kg).|
|PDS:State Governments to shall ensure that stocks of food grains under PDS not replaced by stocks of inferior quality till delivery to the ration card holder.||Fair Price Shops: Within 3 km of habitation; while establishing preference to Self Help Groups, Gram Sabhas and Panchayats for licenses; to ensure women play an active role; Fair Prcie Shop to display list of general and priority households, stocks, entitlements and prices etc; regular inspection in six months; social audit.||National Food Commission:Based at Delhi with regional headquarters; to comprise of 7 members (Chairperson, Member secretary and 5 members); similarly State Food Commissions too; to serve as quasi judicial bodies and enquire into complaints and decide cases.||Compensation:Any aggrieved person to get three times the cash equivalent in case of grievance from concerned local/ govt body.|
The bill is highly ambitious and incorporates some of the best measures but how much can be implemented at ground level is anybody’s guess. The Bill recognizes the need for a strong PDS system and stipulates establishment of “…to develop adequate infrastructure designed and constructed on scientific basis for storage of food grains at state, district and block level as the case may be for distribution under this Act and for adequate buffer stocks.” Given the fact that India has not been able to develop high end infrastructure for buffer and storage in so many years, I don’t know how the govt. plans to get the enormous amounts of money to fund such ambitious projects. One way to do it could have been through the 51% FDI which has now been shelved as a mandatory infrastructure requirement could have resulted in an excellent infrastructure which is an urgent need for the country.
The establishment of fair price shops within 3km of habitation is a good step to ensure greater reach and penetration. There is a provision for grains to be weighed in presence of vigilance committee members. Everybody knows where the holes in the PDS are. The corruption is at two ends- one is when the grains are loaded from the godowns into trucks to be sent to the PDS shops and the second is when it fails to reach the beneficiary from the PDS shop. The greater corruption lies at the first end and it can be tackled by simple means such as putting GPS on trucks. In some states, sms was sent to the village pradhan (Village headman) when the truck leaves the godown so the public is informed when the stock comes. While the bill stipulates “…State Governments shall ensure that stocks of food grains under the Public Distribution System, as issued from the Food Corporation of India godowns, are not replaced by stocks of inferior quality during storage, transit or any other stage till delivery to the ration card holder” it does not say how the state governments are supposed to do it. However, it does stipulate elaborate grievance redressal mechanism is an excellent step. The PDS system is one of the largest schemes to be run anywhere in the world and it can work given the will and necessary framework. This bill empowers the citizens by recognizing their right to information. The uses of technology, sms, disclosure of information are bound to help in fighting corruption in the PDS.
I have been following newspapers closely on this topic; interacting with people and to my surprise almost everybody seems to sound critical of this bill. I don’t know why intellectuals in this country are so cynical. For the first time in independent India, we are at least trying to make an honest effort to ensure the basic requirement viz. Food Security is ensured to the people. No doubt, the dream is too big and there is uncertainty in some aspects such as the Social survey which is not yet complete and the perennial debate on general and priority households. But this bill cannot wait. In fact, it should have come much sooner. Education can wait, everything else can wait but Food Security cannot wait.
Perhaps if there has to be any criticism, it can be that the bill clubs too many things together, providing employment, maternity benefits and employment can be provided by separate acts. The bill could have chosen to focus only on Food and nutritional status at best. This would magnify the task of the authorities, how well it is handled and implemented would be interesting to see. The enormous procurement cost may even drive inflation as in case there is a failure of crop in the country, the government would have to import; driving prices in the process. In my personal opinion, cash transfer should not be resorted to, at least not as yet as I feel India is not ready for it. This may sound contradictory to what I said in my earlier post on Food Security where I cited the example of Brazil where cash transfers were used successfully but India’s problems are different. Given the absence of identity of the people who are meant to be targeted and to adjust the amount for inflation would only complicate matters. However, if we can find some way to do it, then so be it.
The application and use of social audits, use of technology to revamp the PDS system are novel steps which need to be lauded. While there is apprehension about the huge amount of money that the scheme is going to require- I fail to see how that can be a reason for criticizing this bill. Any amount of money spent on eradication of starvation is well spent. How on earth can you place a ceiling or an upper limit on something like food security? If a state cannot provide something as basic as food and prevent starvation deaths, it provides nothing.
I sure do hope that this bill works; the teeming millions living in abject starvation are counting on it. India should not fail them.
Image Credit : Wikipedia