Ensuring food security for all

The Economic Times, May 31, 2010

By Pradeep S Mehta

The National Food Security Bill, 2010 that aims to provide subsidised foodgrain to the very poor is welcome, but its definition of ‘food security’ is too narrow. The Rome declaration on World Food Security (at the World Food Summit in 1996) states that “we, the heads of state and government … reaffirm the right of everyone to have (physical and economic) access to safe and nutritious food, consistent with the right to adequate food and the fundamental right of everyone to be free from hunger.” India is a signatory to this declaration.

The architects of the food security bill have either forgotten the Rome declaration or ignored it. Not only that it has defined food security in a narrow sense — minimum quantity of foodgrains to poor families at subsidised rates — it is also inconsistent with the fundamental right to life of every citizen, particularly when one looks at the issue in the context of various Supreme Court orders.

It appears that the Planning Commission has accepted that approximately 37% of our population is poor and they should come under the ambit of the proposed right to food law. There are many fundamental flaws in the methodology of identifying families living below poverty line (BPL). Firstly, there is no agreement among experts on what would be the poverty line. Secondly, the methodology has adopted a one-size-fits-all approach. For instance, one criteria to identify BPL families is whether they have adequate warm clothing for winters. If they have, they are less likely to be counted as poor. This does not work as winters are not cold in many parts of the country.

The poor should be identified by a simple criteria: do they have the means to meet their basic needs, including food. This ability will vary from one region to another and therefore, the third-tier of the governance system would be most qualified to identify the poor. Applying this criteria, some experts estimate that as much as 89% of our population should have the right to get subsidised food. Otherwise they would not be able to fulfil their entitlement to other basic needs, such as health or education.

Moreover, poverty is not a static situation. It has been proved that other than being cyclical , a large section of Indians are living just above the official poverty line and they are vulnerable. There is a strong case for them to receive state support to access their right to basic needs. This calls for universalisation of the right to food law, so as to make it consistent with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Rome Declaration on World Food Security.

Another provision in the bill says that state governments may provide subsidised food to above poverty line families but the Centre was not required to assist states for this. Such provisions not only adds another dimension to the contentious nature of our federal fiscal relations, but also lead to discrimination.

Not only does right to food need to be universalised , a fresh approach is required to revamp the existing public distribution system. The bill provides that panchayats and urban local bodies should be encouraged to join the PDS. India’s local political economy, with fair price shop owners being politically active at the local level, is such that not only that it will not work but, more importantly, it will make access to food more of a subject of local political calculus, which it should not be.

It has been found that consumer cooperatives are far more effective in running the public distribution system than private owners . There is an inbuiltaccountability mechanism in a cooperative system. State governments , who are constitutionally responsible for managing the food and civil supplies system in their domains, should encourage the formation of consumer cooperatives. They should also adequately empower the third tier to ensure better governance and accountability of consumer cooperatives.

According to one school of thought, the existing PDS should be replaced with food stamps for the poor. Vested interests will oppose such a move, but it is not an either-or situation . A system to provide food stamps should coexist with the public distribution system run by consumer cooperatives. The existing competition scenario in our local food markets is due to a systemic failure. That could be changed by inculcating a better competition culture — by giving the poor an opportunity to exercise their right to choice. That would ensure a systemic mechanism for better governance and accountability in place.

Right to food is not just about getting a minimum quantity of foodgrains at subsidised rates, but about broader issues of food security, which is both physical and economic . This right cannot be ensured by just having a legislation, but by considering the whole system of public welfare. But, if we consider food security as one significant component of the right to satisfaction of basic needs, we need a comprehensive national food security policy, consistent with the Universal Declaration on Human Rights and the Rome Declaration on World Food Security.

The author is secretary general of CUTS International.

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