Revisit food policy, link it with Aadhaar, cash transfer

Food is the fundamental need of all living creatures but has become an economic and political weapon. A hungry population is an economic burden. Food security is a necessary condition for sustainable economic development but has instead become a weapon in the hands of politicians in their game of politics.

Making food available to the public is only one aspect of food security, the others being economic access to food and its absorption by people for better nourishment. Successive governments have miserably failed to guarantee food security even after 70 years of independence. The history of Right to Food is long and derived from various international instruments.

States have the obligation to “respect, protect and fulfil”, that is, first, the state must not itself deprive anyone of access to adequate food; second, it must protect everyone from being deprived of such access to it and third, when anyone is without adequate food, the state must proactively create an enabling environment and where people are unable to do so, must ensure that it is provided.

In 1941, then US president Franklin Roosevelt’s “Four Freedoms” speech outlined ‘the freedom from want’ and became the basis of the UN Charter and the UN Declaration of Human Rights. Though the Right to Food is a globally recognised basic human right, the Constitution does not have express provision to this effect. Only of late, the Supreme Court has reiterated in several of its rulings that the Right to Life guaranteed in Article 21 of the Constitution, in principle meant the right to food, clothing and shelter.

It is very distressing to note that it took long for the state to notice this right and enact the National Food Security Act, 2013 (NFSA) with a laudable objective of eradicating hunger and malnutrition in the shortest possible time by providing a legal entitlement of food grains at subsidised prices to persons of priority households under the Targeted Public Distribution System. The central pivot of the Act which is large-scale subsidised grain distribution to two-thirds of the country’s population is perhaps the biggest ever experiment in the world to achieve food and nutritional security.

This social legislation is fraught with many implementational challenges. Considering the current trends of growth in food grain production and yield, there is a possibility that food grain availability on sustainable basis becomes a constraint. With 60% of farmland dependent on monsoon, drought years can reduce production and force the country to import large quantities.

When growth rate of yield of food grains has declined from 2.4% in 1990s to only 1.3% in 2000s, from where does the state muster the enough food grains? Food subsidy in the coming years will escalate thus increasing the number of beneficiaries, not to mention the creaking infrastructure, leakages and inefficient governance.

Currently, the economic cost for the Food Corporation of India for acquiring, storing and distributing food grains is about 40% more than the procurement price. It is high time that the government revisits the food grains policy with a shift from physical handling to cash transfers/food coupons/smart cards linking it with ‘Aadhaar’, which will avoid the need to keep 80 million tonnes of stocks, help cut down the costs of storage, avoid duplication of beneficiaries etc.

In Brazil, the Bolsa Familia programme, world’s largest cash transfer programme, has lifted more than 20 million Brazilians out of acute poverty and has promoted education and healthcare. It is vital that India takes a leaf out of this and evolves an effective innovative strategy.

Immunity to government

Schedule I of the NFSA enshrines that food grains will be distributed at subsidised prices for a period of three years from the date of commencement of the Act and it is appalling to note that those three years have already elapsed and no effort is made by the successive governments to give it a continuing effect. The Force Majeure Clause in the Act provides immunity to the government against any claim by the beneficiaries for loss, damage or compensation arising out of the failure to supply food grains during the times of droughts and floods.

The NFSA has tried giving the public distribution system a new lease of life despite its established history of pilferages to the extent of 40%. Section 13 provides that in case of non-supply of the entitled food grains, the state shall pay `food security allowance’. But, will the allowance be in commensurate with the market price of grains? In order to empower women, Section 19(1) entitles the eldest woman to be the head of the household for the purpose of issue of ration card but women empowerment is a more complicated concept and involves a concerted approach.

Higher level of buffer stock carry the risk of higher wastage of food grains along with higher cost of maintenance. Currently, the FCI is facing an acute shortage of infrastructure to store food grains as we have witnessed that FCI godowns are feeding the rodents than the hungry citizenry.

The NFSA also aims at improving the nutritional status of the people. Malnutrition is a multi-dimensional problem and needs a multi-pronged strategy. Women’s education, access to clean drinking water, availability of hygienic sanitation facilities are the prime prerequisites for improved nutrition. The state, in order to effectively implement this Act, has to energise the agricultural sector by incentivising it further on a war footing. The state, instead of trying to achieve the superficial contentment, should create more employment opportunities.

As the famous saying goes “Give a man a fish and you feed him a day, but teach a man to fish and you feed him for his life”. International instruments have declared that the state must proactively create an enabling environment where people become self-reliant for food but has not mandated that the state en masse should provide cheap food at their doorstep. I hope to see enlightened India where everybody is literate and liberated from poverty.

(The writer is Assistant Professor, Viveka­nanda College of Law, Bengaluru)

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