Bangalore: New tensions are emerging between the government and its think tank, with the food ministry making major changes to a National Advisory Council (NAC) draft of a new law slated to become the blockbuster social-security scheme of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government’s troubled second tenure.
Key provisions of the national food security Bill, 2011, due to be introduced in Parliament’s next session starting 2 August, and estimated to cost the government an additional food subsidy of anywhere between Rs20,000 crore and Rs40,000 crore every year, have been toned down or deleted. Mint has reviewed the NAC and government versions of the Bill.
The government version, which has not yet been sent to NAC, has deleted entitlements for single-women households, a chapter on grievance redressal, punishment for dereliction of duty and compensation for those who do not get food, which, NAC argues, is the “bedrock” of the proposed law. Rights of people living with starvation and children with malnutrition, and the powers of an independent enforcement authority have been watered down.
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“I am extremely disappointed. It’s a caricature of the notion of the right to food,” said Harsh Mander, convenor of NAC’s food security group, its largest committee. “They (the food ministry) have reduced it to supplying free meals and subsidized foodgrain.”
“The government will be missing a great opportunity if it goes ahead with this draft,” said Mander. “Maternal and child nutrition should have been at the heart of such a law.”
Nearly half of all Indian children are malnourished, asare millions of adults, more than anywhere else in the world.
The NAC draft was forwarded by UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi to the government on 2 July.
The food ministry, tasked by the government to review the draft, has forwarded its version to an empowered group of ministers, which will decide the final draft to be submitted to Parliament.
“We have removed from the NAC version some rhetoric, problematic areas and tried to make it financially realistic, while retaining its essence,” said a top government functionary, declining to be identified because of the political sensitivity of the issue. “There is nothing wrong with this.”
A key change is the reduction in foodgrain entitlement per person from 4kg to 3kg per month, a quarter less than the NAC proposal.
NAC contends this could mean compromising on “adequate nutrition”.
The government says 4kg would strain the country’s finances and foodgrain stocks.
The government version of the Bill is shorter and alsoterser. Some of the changes appear to be an attempt to safeguard government primacy over enforcement. Others are attempts to reduce state liability.
“The (Act) is envisaged as a path-breaking legislation, aimed at protecting all children, women and men in India from hunger and food deprivation,” says the first line of NAC’s draft.
The government version says: “A Bill to provide for food and nutritional security, in human life-cycle approach, by ensuring access to adequate quantity of quality food at affordable prices.”
In places, the changes appear to be slapdash.
For instance, the NAC draft says: “Homeless persons shall mean persons who live in structures without a roof, such as on the roadside, pavements, drainage pipes, under staircases, outside shops.” The food ministry’s version: “Homeless person—who does not live in a structure, or lives in shelter for homeless.”
The right to food is the third such legally enforceable right of the UPA’s two tenures. The right to work, under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS), was the first, during the UPA’s first term. The right to education was the second.
Both are presently struggling with enforcement issues. The right to work was to guarantee 100 days of work in a fiscal year. It has managed to provide half that figure or less, and in some states it is no more than 15 days.
“We have the experience of education and the MGNREGS,” said Mander, criticizing the government’s deletion of an independent enforcing authority.
“We’ve seen that you might grant a number of rights, but without independent enforcement, they will not be realized,” he added.
Food subsidies for 2009-10 were Rs70,000 crore, or Rs10,000 crore more than what the government officially states.
Last month, the World Bank warned that 60% of India’s burgeoning food subsidies do not reach the poor, a warning that the public distribution system needs to be fixed before the right to food is enforced.
The Hunger Project is a joint effort of Mint and the Hindustan Times to track, investigate and report every aspect of the struggle to rid India of hunger. If you have suggestions, write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org