New Delhi: The draft food security legislation readied for cabinet’s approval is much narrower in scope than what was initially envisaged and, hence, stops short of assuring an entitlement as had been previously pledged.
Watered down: Congress president Sonia Gandhi. The draft food security legislation, influenced by the fiscal constraints on the UPA, falls short of the original proposal approved by Gandhi. Nand Kumar / PTI
The final draft Bill which has been approved by the empowered group of ministers (eGoM) and reviewed by Mint restricts coverage only to poor citizens, confines it to the supply of 25kg of wheat and rice, does not lock in the government to a fixed issue price and excludes destitutes from the purview of other welfare schemes covered by the proposed food security Bill.
As a result, it is unlike what has been provided under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS), which guarantees employment to one member of every rural household and does not restrict it to those living below the poverty line (BPL).
While the eGoM decision is considered to be final, it requires a formal nod by the cabinet through its inclusion in the agenda. Thereafter, it will be put in the public domain for discussion. Mint could not confirm the date on which it would be put up for approval.
The legislation, influenced by the fiscal constraints on the United Progressive Alliance (UPA), in its present form falls short of the original proposal approved by Sonia Gandhi, Congress party president and chairperson of the National Advisory Council (NAC). The election manifesto of the Congress promised entitlement by enacting “a right to food law that guarantees access to sufficient food for all people, particularly the most vulnerable sections of society.”
The contours of the food security law were laid out by President Pratibha Patil in her speech to members of Parliament in the first session of the 15th Lok Sabha in June, where she maintained that it would amount to an entitlement.
She said the legislation would “provide a statutory basis for a framework, which assures food security for all. Every family below the poverty line in rural as well as urban areas will be entitled, by law, to 25kg of rice or wheat per month at Rs3 per kg. This legislation will also be used to bring about broader systemic reform in the public distribution system (PDS)”.
However, the eGoM headed by finance minister Pranab Mukherjee has delinked the proposed National Food Security Act (NFSA) from nutritional security and thereby restricted it to the BPL sections of the population. Further, instead of providing for all foodgrains, including coarse cereals such as jowar and bajra, it has restricted it to wheat and rice.
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An economist closely associated with the development programmes of the government who did not want to be identified said that the draft Act had been “completely watered down”. “It is a shell without content and this is not good enough to address the real issue of poverty and hunger in India,” the person said.
Harsh Mander, the Supreme Court-appointed commissioner on food security, had a similar argument.
“The proposed law adds nothing whatsoever to impoverished people’s rights and access to sufficient food for an active and healthy life,” Mander said. “In fact, it actually reduces these entitlements.”
Mander pointed out that the PDS already provides for more subsidized foodgrains per poor household than the proposed law—35kg against the 25kg promised in the law.
The final draft cleared by the eGoM also moves away from some of the decisions taken at its meeting on 12 February and reported in Mint on 5 March. It had, for instance, sought the inclusion of destitutes, beggars, street children and the homeless within the BPL category, which the final version omits.
The final draft of the food legislation approved by the eGoM also implicitly indicates that the government can, if it so requires, vary the issue price of PDS foodgrains. It does so by omitting any reference to the proposed price of Rs3 per kg and says that the price would be specified in the rules that will be issued separately.
Similarly, while the final draft commits to a social audit, it has left it to the government to notify through the rules the periodicity and the institutions that would conduct it. The original proposal had sought a commitment to an annual audit by the local bodies and linked the renewal of fair price shop licences to performance.
The Hunger Project is a joint effort of the Hindustan Times and Mint to track, investigate and report every aspect of the struggle to rid India of hunger. If you have any suggestions, write to us at email@example.com