The Food Security Bill
by K P Prabhakaran Nair on 10 Sep 2011 5 Comments
The draft of the Food Security Bill is yet to be discussed in Parliament. There has been much discussion on it in the National Advisory Council (NAC), chaired by Ms. Sonia Gandhi. One could find votaries of all hues and fierce arguments have been put forth on its various provisions.

The extreme has been the recently released letter to the Prime Minister, where NAC member Aruna Roy, economist Jean Dreze (ex-NAC) and civil liberties activist Binayak Sen, and others, have written to the Prime Minister calling the Food Security Bill a “farce”. Before we take up the important ingredients of the bill, let us ponder over the basic foundation of what ought to be a foolproof food security bill.


Right to food – what does it imply? In 1948, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted and the right to food acknowledged. The international declaration asserting the right to food does not imply that states shall be responsible directly for fulfilling the individuals’ need and right to food.


Article 25 of the declaration maintains that “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and his family, including food…, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control”. In 1966, the UN General Assembly adopted the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which further formalised the right to food as a basic human right. Article 11 of the Covenant further endorsed Article 25 of the 1948 Declaration cited earlier.


By 1989, as many as 85 states, including India, had signed the Covenant. Yet, there has been no solution to human hunger more than half a century after adopting the original Declaration, and after three World Food Summits in Rome, where the delegates, including agricultural messiahs from India, helped themselves to lavish lunches and dinners over a week. This, when about 6 per cent of the world population, that is India, mostly poor working women, pregnant poor mothers and their dependent children and poor working men in slums, go to bed each day with half-filled or totally empty stomachs.


This, after a so-called “Green Revolution” which is supposed to have filled our granaries, according to these agricultural messiahs. Where is our sense of justice? Can there be a greater shame than this? We shall examine things further.


The most worrisome controversy that is grabbing headlines is whether to install a universal supply chain, revamp the public distribution system (PDS), or replace it with a “cash for food” scheme. Even as negotiations on the food security bill in the NAC enter the final stages, there has been a shrill clamour in policy circles to replace the PDS with cash transfers.


Look at the following scenario: Blogging in the Wall Street Journal, newly appointed chairman of the Commission for Agriculture Costs and Prices (CACP), Ashok Gulati, asserted that conditional cash transfers would “provide food security to poor in a cost-effective manner, promote a more diverse diet”, and, hold your breath, “empower women through education” (since the transfer would be conditional on sending the children to school)!


Immediately following this, in an interview to the same paper, Kaushik Basu, the new economic think tank to the PM/country, questioned the very paradigm of legislating such rights, because, then “you also violate those rights, and rights violation becomes a culture”.


An extension of this logic would be that we should not have equal rights guaranteed to women or SCs in the country, since we cannot be certain of these rights being violated!


Contrast this with the demands made by 500-odd women from Delhi slums, who staged a protest outside the offices of the Delhi government’s food department on March 4, where they demanded that the PDS be “reformed”, rather than “dismantled”. The message was clear and unambiguous – cash transfers for them could not substitute for food. They argued that the responsibility of provisioning food for the household vests with them, and yet, they would have little control over the cash that came into the household.


Clearly, food, not money will ensure security, and cash transfers won’t keep the pots boiling! The latest survey results instituted by Jean Dreze, co-authored by Reetika Khera, clearly show that PDS, though susceptible to leakages, has vastly improved in grain delivery, especially to those below poverty line (BPL families). Pilferage comes in the above poverty line (APL) category.


The important point to extract from the reaction of these 500-odd women is that, unlike our free marketer economists, they had little faith in the ability of private traders to provide them with quality food. Why is K.V. Thomas, looking after the food portfolio, reluctant to set in motion an idea on these lines? Or is it that he is just content making an extensive tour of China last year, at tax payers’ money, to “study grain storage” there, and then make a few public speeches on the subject? These are uncomfortable questions.


PDS should be expanded into other supportive areas like pulses, edible oils, millets and other basic necessities of the poor, than being merely confined to the staple grains. The huge mountain of grain in the FCI godowns should be effectively delivered through the PDS to the needy.


The Empowered Group of Ministers (EGoM), which has cleared the draft of the Food Security Bill, makes a complete mockery of the idea of food security for all, and dilutes even existing entitlements, obtained through the Supreme Court. In fact, the very title of the draft bill should be “Food and Nutrition Security”. Grains alone do not constitute food. Take the example of pulses. India is essentially vegetarian, and for millions of poor Indians, the only protein supplement is pulses.


Look at the pathetic state of pulse production in India, despite hundreds of crores spent on meaningless “research”. What incentive does the pulse farmer get? Since decades pulse crops have been shunted to the rainfed areas of the country. In fact millions of poor farmers grow it on waste lands. This is an irony that India’s agricultural scientists and planners should seriously address. Even the extensive nutrition studies of the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) show that it is a good balance between the staples (like rice, wheat etc) and pulses, the former providing enough carbohydrates and the latter providing enough proteins to the body, that leads to a healthy individual.


As of now, despite bulging food stocks, India should be seen as a country in famine, since any country in which 40 per cent of the population have a Body Mass Index (BMI) below 45 per cent should be considered as a country in famine. According to the Hyderabad-based National Nutrition Monitoring Bureau, the BMI of all adults in the country is only 37 per cent. About 47 per cent of children below the age 5 are underweight and the chances of survival of 23 per cent of all newborns are slim.


It is against the background of these grim facts that the Food Security Bill should be discussed. That the Parliament did not take up the bill in the monsoon session, and the Sports Bill got precedence, speaks volumes for the apathy of those who rule this nation!


I would conclude by saying that unless the Prime Minister directly addresses the above cited crucial questions, the Food Security Bill will be a futile exercise. Will he rise to the occasion? That is a million dollar question!


Prof K.P. Prabhakaran Nair is a Kerala-based international agricultural scientist and can be reached at

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