No need to rush Food Security Bill

On one hand, we have the responsibility of feeding one-fourth of the world’s hungry mouths and on the other we have emerged as the largest exporter of rice in the year 2012-13. Yet as of April 1 this year, we had 38.6 million tonnes surplus food stock.

However, this surfeit isn’t working in the public’s favour due to lack of efforts in liquidating the excess, ultimately resulting in a little over 10 million tonnes of grain valued at Rs 20,000 crore rotting in the open.

Amidst this pandemonium of visible paradoxes exists the mounting pressure to hastily introduce the much-hyped National Food Security Bill (NFSB). It is the UPA-II’s ambitious effort to envelop two-thirds of the country’s population by universalising the existing public distribution system (PDS), integrated child development services (ICDS) and mid-day meal scheme (MDM). While the idea is to make 50 per cent urban and 75 per cent rural population food secure, there is little novelty about the bill itself. The overall expenditure to bring this bill into effect would cost a whopping Rs 682,000 crore over a three year period.

Of course, the bill would fulfill a very vital right i.e. Right to Life which cannot be possible without eradicating hunger. However, the negative corollary of the draft bill’s approval would be felt by the very same population it sets out to benefit.  Thus, what we need to understand is does the bill really need to be passed in a hurry? A deeper look into the existing leakages may offer a clearer picture.

Pilferages and corruption

To begin with, UPA-II intends to roll out the bill through the public distribution system (PDS), often labelled as the biggest of its kind in the world carried out nationwide with the help of 50 lakh ration shops. However, the pilferages and corruption amount to an unbelievable 58 per cent (Planning Commission, 2005).

Another reason why working via PDS would be insensible is that it works along the lines of poverty line figures - Rs 26 a day for an adult in rural India and Rs 32 in urban India. Ironically, since the bill would also work on the above-said parameters, a large section of the poor would legally be excluded from this right as “61 per cent of the eligible population was excluded from the BPL list while 25 per cent of APL (Above Poverty Line) households were included in the BPL list” (N C Saxena Study, 2009). Even then, the states will not be able to roll out the bill till all Aadhaar cards are issued. In Kerala alone, 79 per cent have enrolled for the cards, but less that 45 per cent have received it. Keeping in mind the current scenario there is a long way to go. The draft bill has superficially acknowledged the intergenerational cycle of malnutrition (60 million children are underweight and 75 per cent new mothers are anemic: World Bank) as ‘pregnant and lactating mothers and children up to two years are entitled to free meals at local anganwadis and Rs 6,000 maternity benefits in installments.

 If one would argue about the efficiency of the programme for women and children through Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) under which the anganwadis operate, a 2012 report by the anganwadi workers’ federation reveals that “73,375 posts of anganwadi workers and 16,251 posts of supervisors are lying vacant”— a fact worth mulling over. This also forces one to analyse the government’s plans to identify children suffering from malnutrition, leave aside curing them. Apart from this, access to clean drinking water, health education and sanitation facilities hasn’t been taken care of, all of which are paramount and without which, the rest automatically fails for ‘malnutrition is a multi-dimensional problem and needs a multi-pronged strategy’.

The food bill shall also provide one free mid-day meal to children aged 6 – 14 in their schools on all academic days through the existing MDM scheme. However, out of 9.55 lakh kitchen constructions which were sanctioned between 2006-7 and 2012-13, only 63 per cent have been completed. An in states such as Andhra Pradesh, only 3,077 kitchens are operational. This is despite sanctioning 75, 283 kitchen-cum-stores. On a qualitative note, the poor quality, quantity and variety of food still needs a proper analysis. 

Finally, with mismanagement in each sector amounting so high and no set time frame for the bill’s execution either, maybe it would be a better idea to first fix these existing leakages and then re-conceptualise this elephantine scheme. Till then, we have little choice but to continue battling colossal hunger.

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