‘Food Security’ Still a Far Cry

As we go to press, the National Food Security Bill 2013 (promulgated as an ordinance on 5th July on the eve of the monsoon session to circumvent debate) has been tabled in Parliament, and the Government is keen to be able to pass it in the monsoon session. The ordinance, and the Bill in its present shape, however, are very far from ensuring food security and freedom from hunger.

The Bill continues with the system of ‘Targeted PDS’. In practice, ‘targeting’ has meant exclusion of the poor. Targeting should be seen in the backdrop of UPA Government’s claims of having ‘reduced poverty’ and its stubbornness in sticking to inhuman definitions of poverty. With the prices of basics touching the sky, the vast majority of India’s people face difficulties ensuring basic nutritional needs. The NFSB 2013 will exclude 33% of the people from availing of the PDS as a right. Universal coverage excluding only the very rich, is the only way to ensure that the needy get food as a right.

The Bill doesn’t even ensure the proverbial ‘do vakt ki roti’ (two square meals a day). The entitlement provided in the Bill is 5 kgs of food grain per person per month, which comes to 166 grams per person per day. This could barely ensure 2 rotis per day. According to the ICMR norms, the minimum nutritional requirement is 14 kgs per month for an adult and 7 kgs per month for a child. So the NFSB is actually providing to adults, less than the minimum requirement for a child!

Further, the question arises: doesn’t ‘Food Security’ require nutritional requirements beyond cereals? What about pulses, edible oil? The NFSB 2013 sticks strictly to cereals alone. A minimum of 2.5 kgs of dal and 900 gms of edible oil should be guaranteed.

The NFSB 2013 promises to provide grains at subsidized prices (millets at Re1, wheat at Rs 2 and rice at Rs 3) only for a period of 3 years! Subsequently, prices could be raised up to the MSP. This is a fraud in the name of food security. The subsidized rates ought to be protected for at least a decade before any amendments.

The NFSB 2013 provides no income guarantees and higher MSP for farmers. It allows for the back door entry of cash transfers – as part of PDS reforms “such as cash transfer, food coupons…to the targeted beneficiaries in lieu of their foodgrain entitlements”, and as a ‘food security allowance’ in case food rations are not available. Cash transfers or any such substitute for food rations would completely mock at the idea of food security, and would mark a move away from government procurement from farmers.

The NFSB also seeks to make ration provisions conditional on possession of the Aadhaar/UID card. This stipulation is dangerous. For one, the experience with Aadhaar has proved dismal, and in no way has it served as a credible proof of identity. People have even got Aadhaar cards with pictures of trees and animals. Moreover, Aadhaar continues to be discredited because it lacks legal basis, and has the potential for misuse of personal details for corporate interests and surveillance purposes.

The NFSB also tries to smuggle in private contractors and corporate interests in the ICDS food supply, by specifying ‘Energy Dense Food fortified with micronutrients as per 50 per cent of Recommended Dietary Allowance’ in Note-1 in Schedule-II of the Bill. This will mean that ordinary locals will be deemed unfit to ensure nutritional standards of the ICDS meal, and instead corporations will be ushered in! The entry of corporations and private players should be prohibited and there should be explicit emphasis on decentralized, local production of meals.

The NFSB still leaves room for maternal entitlements to linked to the two-child norm, implying that mothers will not get their rights when they have more than two children. This would be highly discriminatory and anti-women.

The NFSB has no provisions for special entitlements for the sections of the people who are most vulnerable to starvation: the homeless, destitute, migrants, single women, disabled people, and the elderly. It has no protocol for monitoring hunger and starvation. Community kitchens for the homeless and destitute, and special provisions for the starvation prone areas are a must.

Strangely, the Bill states that food security provisions can be suspended in case of natural calamity or war – the very situations in which people are more vulnerable to hunger, and expanded coverage is called for! The Bill says that the “Centre …or State Government shall be liable for a claim by any person entitled under’ it, ‘except in the cse of war, flood, drought, fire, cyclone or earthquake affecting the regular supply of foodgrains or meals.”

The NFSB’s grievance redress mechanism is weak. Panchayat/block level grievance redress mechanism that is empowered to punish erring officials is a must.

Passing the NFSB 2013 in this form can only be a mockery of the very idea of food security. Instead, it amounts to a pretentiously tokenist measure by the UPA Government to make electoral capital of the chronic problem of mass hunger, with an eye on the 2014 polls.

Box matter

The RTI Act and Political Parties

Following the CIC ruling recommending that recognized political parties be treated as ‘public bodies’ under the RTI Act, there has been a move by several parties to amend the RTI Act to keep political parties out of the ambit of the RTI.

The concerns for transparency in the functioning of political parties in the public domain, whose policies impact on the lives of the public, are very genuine. But the implications of the CIC ruling should be very carefully considered.

There can be question that there should be adequate transparency about the way activities of political parties are funded, and common people have every right to ask – and know – details about funding. For that matter, the matters of funding of all bodies that are in the public domain – even if they are not strictly Government bodies – is a matter of public interest and therefore should be absolutely transparent. This does not relate to Government funding alone but even to corporate funding.

But to equate political parties with Governments and to bring matters of their internal functioning and decision-making into the domain of RTI would be undemocratic in more ways than one. If we argue that political parties are ‘public bodies’, the next step will be to call Trade Unions, associations, etc public bodies too. To bring people’s voluntary associations under the domain of RTI would go against the right to association, and would turn the RTI from a democratic tool into a weapon against democracy. The deliberations and decisions of meetings of political parties and people’s associations or unions, their strategies or tactics in selecting candidates, their organizational decisions, are all matters strictly related to the internal democracy of that party (or association or union). People’s movements would be unable to function if they were forced to reveal in advance, details of plans made by them for protest actions, candidates they plan to field, and so on. In this sense, the distinction between governments and parties must be maintained, and the norms of transparency and accountability cannot apply in exactly the same way for both. As the CPI(ML) statement on the CIC ruling observed, “Internal deliberations and decisions made by political parties belong to the domain of inner-party democracy and RTI cannot be used as an instrument to curb it. The norms of transparency and accountability applicable to governments that are elected by the people cannot exactly be applied to political parties which are constituted by members abiding by the programmes and objectives of the parties. Within the limits of distinction between governments and parties, the CPI(ML) is all for greater transparency about the funding and functioning of political parties.”

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