National Food Security Bill: The Provisions And A Critique

Posted on May 24, 2013 in Specials

By Harsh Vasani:

There are people in the world so hungry, that God cannot appear to them except in the form of bread.
― Mahatma Gandhi

According to the Global Hunger Index (GHI) 2012, a report released by the International Food Policy and Research Institute, India ranks 65 amongst the 79 countries in the GHI. In a country battling colossal hunger, the National Food Security Bill proves to be a step in the right direction, albeit followed by a feeling of being too late to encounter a national shame. On the 22nd of April, the parliament tabled this bill but failed to pass it in the budget session. We look at the provisions of the bill, followed by a critical analysis.

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Entitlements

– The bill seeks to classify the citizens into Priority households and Antyodaya Households.
The priority households are entitled to 5 Kgs of food grain per person-per month; whereas the Antyodaya households are entitled to 35 Kgs of food grain per month-per household. The food grains will be distributed through the existing Public Distribution System (PDS) at Rs. 3, 2, 1 for rice, wheat and millet respectively. The combined coverage of the NFSB (National Food Security Bill), i.e., The priority and antyodaya households are called ‘eligible households’ and covers 75% of rural and 50% of the urban population.

(The Antyodaya Anna Yojana is a Government of India scheme launched on 25th December 2000. It caters to the BPL families and provides them with 35 Kgs of food grain per month. However, in some states, this scheme has gone beyond the initial provision and has become almost universal, e.g. Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh)

Maternity Benefits

– The bill proposes pregnant and lactating women be provided a nutritious meal at the local anganwadi during pregnancy and six months after childbirth.

– It also proposes monetary benefits of not less than 6000 rupees in installments,  the specifications of this will be prescribed by the Central government.

However, these provisions won’t be entitled to women in regular employment in central or state government or any other PSU or those who are in receipt of similar benefits.

Entitlements To Children

– The bill proposes that children from the age group of six months to six years be provided one ‘age appropriate’ meal at the local anganwadi.

– For children in the age group of six years to 14 years, midday meal to be provided every day, except on school holidays, at the local government school, government aided school or schools run by local governing bodies.

– Every government school and anganwadi is to have cooking facilities, clean drinking water facility and proper sanitation. However, in urban areas, centralised kitchens can be used wherever required.

– The local aganwadi shall identify children suffering from malnourishment and provide nutritious meals.

Funding And Food Security Allowance

– The cost of the subsidy is to be shared by the central and state government. The specifications are yet to be prescribed by the Central government.

– In case of non-supply of food grains, the entitled person is eligible to receive food security allowance from the state government. The time, manner and amount of the allowance will be prescribed by the Central government.

Identification

– The state government is given the responsibility of identifying the total number of eligible households. The state governments are also empowered with specifying the criteria for identification of ‘priority’ households. This means the ‘priority households’ may differ from state to state. The Census population estimates will be used by the central government to determine the state-wide coverage of the PDS and the rural-urban population proportion.

– The state government shall prominently display the list of identified households in the public domain.

Reforms In The Public Distribution System

In order to ensure transparency and better delivery of entitlement. The government plans to introduce certain reforms and decentralization of power.

– Doorstep delivery of food grains to the Targeted Public Distribution System (TPDS) outlets.

– End-to-end computerisation of transactions to ensure transparency.

– Aadhar card will be used for better identification of the beneficiaries.

– Transparency and accountability of records.

– Preference to the public bodies and institutions like panchayats, self help groups, co-operatives in licensing and management of fair price shops. Women will be given more priority to manage the fair price shops.

– Diversification of commodities distributed under TPDS.

– The bill also talks about introduction of food coupons and cash transfers in lieu of their regular entitlements. However, no immediate implementation of this is prescribed in the bill.

Grievance Redressal Mechanism And Women Empowerment

– The state government is to have a district level grievance redressal officer. It shall put in place internal grievance redressal mechanism which may include call centres and help lines.

– The state governments are supposed to constitute a state commission which will help in an effective implementation of this Act.

– In order to empower women, the bill states that the eldest women, who shall not be less than 18 years of age, be designated the head of the household and is responsible for the issue of ration cards.

Note

The bill was first introduced in 2010 by an empowered group of ministers. Criticised for being minimalist in approach, the bill then went through a string of reforms by the National Advisory Council (NAC). After more than 71 reforms, the bill was introduced in the parliament.

We try to analysis the bill and its loopholes by juxtaposing it with the NAC’s recommendations and the Right to Food Campaign’s demands.

The proposal of 5 kgs of food grains per person per household, is seen as a failure to ensure food security as the minimum intake is estimated to be 7 kgs per person or 35 kgs per household as also mandated by the Supreme court in its ‘right to food case’ and which is also the minimum entitlement for the Antyodaya households. Besides this, the provision is inconsistent and ambiguous as no clear definition of a ‘household’ is given. Families with more or less members may struggle with the limited entitlements or may end up with a surplus.

While the NAC’s draft recommends 90% of the rural population be covered by the bill, the government draft restricts this to 75%. However, both the drafts fail to universalise the PDS with the exclusive approach. Instead of dividing the population into priority and Antyodaya households, a more general and all-encompassing bill should have been introduced.

Unlike the NAC, the standing committee’s draft does not speak about households which are usually excluded:

– Households belonging to “Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Groups” (PVTGs).
– Household designated as most discriminated against Scheduled Caste (SC) groups, called “Maha Dalit Groups” identified by a few states.
– Single women headed households.
– Households with disabled persons as bread earners.
– Households headed by a minor.
– Destitute households which are dependent predominantly on alms for survival.
– Homeless households.
– Households where any member is a bonded labourer.

The states of Tamil Nadu and Odisha are the only two states at present that have ‘destitute feeding centres’. These are very important to combat starvation and have proved effective. Inclusion of this clause would have proved efficient in reaching the most vulnerable classes.

One of the most compelling clauses of the NAC’s draft was ‘no denial to child’ specification. Under this, no child, less than 14 years of age, can be turned away from an anganwadi, govt school or destitute feeding centre. Here, only age can be a criterion. The government draft does not mention anything about this.

The mechanism to ensure transparency also needs some reforms. The grievance redressal system is at the district level; a more decentralised approach, wherein, an officer at panchayat or block level would prove more effective and more accessible to the people.

The two child norm, under which, the cooked meal at anganwadi and the monetary benefits would not be applicable to any mother having a third child is unjustly punitive to women who may not have access to contraceptives and who may not have a voice in crucial matters like the number of children to bear.

The bill also fails in diversification of food entitlements by not providing bajra, jowar, ragi and maize. This diversification would not only provide nutritious alternatives, but also encourage farmers to cultivate these grains due to compulsory procurement by the government.

Lastly, one major point of contention is the absence of any immediate timeframe for the execution of the bill, instead the bill talks about a ‘phased implementation’ which could well take a few years to reach the desired levels.

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