Food security bill may tackle hunger, but not the need for nutrition

The ambitious food security initiative of the UPA led government seeks to make available food grains at subsidised rates to two-thirds of the country’s 1.2 billion population. However, the National Food Security Bill, passed by Parliament this week, falls short on ensuring nutritional security of the majority of the estimated 82 crore beneficiaries.

The bill seeks to provide nutritious food for children up to 14 years, expectant women and lactating mothers by assuring them of hot cooked meals through various central government schemes. But it is silent on making similar provisions to meet the protein and fat requirements of the rest of the population as it has no entitlements to basic food necessities such as pulses and edible oil which play a key role in combating malnutrition.

Though the bill has provisions to make available coarse cereals at Re 1 per kg, the focus is on providing either rice or wheat which is produced aplenty. The excessive focus on rice and wheat implies that the government is keen to give 67 per cent of its population a carbohydrate rich diet.

However, merely providing cheap food grains does not guarantee nutrition. Nutrition requires a balanced diet of calories, proteins, fats and essential micro-nutrients. According to the Indian Council for Medical Research, it should comprise cereals pulses, vegetables, oil, sugar, milk and fruits which comes to around 2,100 kilo calories (Kcal) for urban population and 2,400 Kcal for rural areas.

According to the ICMR dietary guidelines 330 grams of cereals are required per person per day which takes the monthly requirement to 11 kg. The National Food Security Bill has provisions to give a beneficiary the right to only 166 grams of cereals per day.

A recent survey on hunger and malnutrition in India, carried out by the Nandi Foundation, found that 42 per cent children under five years are underweight and 59 per cent have stunted growth. In the 100 districts surveyed, a shocking 93.7 per cent mothers said they did not give their children non-cereal foods because they were too expensive.

The National Food Security Bill seeks to address this anomaly by strengthening and integrating the 39-year-old Integrated Child Development Scheme (ICDS) and the more recent Mid-day Meal scheme of the Central government. It refers to a life-cycle approach in ensuring access to necessary quantity and quality of nutritious food and proposes to give Rs 1,000 per month for six months as maternity benefit to pregnant women and lactating mothers. This measure is expected to ensure that attention is paid to the nutrition of women from conception to childbirth and child care.

Focus on nutrition

Seeking to bring focus on nutrition, the bill has provisions to provide hot cooked or pre-cooked and heated meal under the Centre’s ICDS and mid-day meal programmes. While the ICDS aims at providing supplementary nutrition to children up to the age of six, the mid-day meal scheme covers almost 12 crore children in primary and upper primary schools. However, vulnerable groups such as street children and child labourers, the most malnourished, are not covered under the ICDS and the bill is silent on reaching out to them.

A recent Planning Commission report also found that only half of the children eligible for ICDS benefits were enrolled with the anganwadi centres thus raising questions on the efficacy of the programme. Experts believe that malnutrition should not be addressed only through programmes such as the ICDS and that there was a need to establish linkages between communities and health workers to address the problem effectively.

The ambitious initiative would require annually an estimated 612.3 lakh tons of food grains and the corresponding subsidy works for its implementation, at 2013-14 costs, is to the tune of Rs 1.3 lakh crore (USD 22 billion). The sheer numbers proposed to be covered – over 82 crore – also makes the initiative the biggest of its kind in the world.

The bill seeks to offer rice at Rs 3 per kg, wheat at Rs 2 per kg and coarse cereals at Rs 1 per kg to the intended beneficiaries. Up to 75 per cent of the rural population and 50 per cent of the urban population will get 5 kg of food grains per person per month. The poorest of the poor, who are covered under the Antyodaya Anna Yojana will continue to get their present monthly entitlement of 35 kg of food grains.

No wonder, the size and the subsidies involved have raised concerns in the financial circles, with a section attributing the current spike in rupee volatility and stock market plunge to the passage of the bill in the Lok Sabha. International credit rating agency Moody’s also gave a thumbs down to the initiative terming it credit negative as it would increase food subsidies from the current 0.8 per cent of the GDP to 1.2 per cent.

However, the government was dismissive of these apprehensions, particularly on the upheaval witnessed last week in the currency and stock markets. Finance Minister P Chidambaram contended that the National Food Security Bill and the Land Acquisition Bill were in the works for quite some time and there was no reason for the markets to get spooked by it.

The initiative is expected to cost the government Rs 90,000 crore this financial year provided all the states implement the measure in right earnest. Provisions for this have been made in this year’s budget as food subsidy and the government expects the payouts this year would not overshoot the allocations already made. It can be called a good beginning which can be improved upon after evaluating its performance over the years.

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