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India: Implementation of the National Food Security Bill

December 3, 2013

An Article from the Asian Human Rights Commission

India: Implementation of the National Food Security Bill – will the poor benefit?

Simon Ladegaard Jakobsen

In a previous article I argued that India's "rights revolution" has so far mostly existed on paper without significant improvements in the conditions of the poor. In this article I examine the prospects of implementing the National Food Security Bill (NFSB), which was written into law the 12th of September 2013. In particular, I will look at those institutional arrangements provided in the bill to ensure accountability and transparency. It seems like the GoI have not learned from the experience of the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act for which the safeguards included in the act has proven to be inadequate.

First, it can be noted that neither the NREGA nor the NFSB include provisions that amount to the right to work or the right to food. The idea of introducing the NREGA was to provide livelihood security for those excluded from the economy. But the bill only guarantees 100 days of work per household per year, and leaves it open for some states to pay less than minimum wages. This is obviously not sufficient for securing a decent livelihood. Likewise, the Food Security Bill only promises 5 kg of wheat, rice or millets per person, which will not provide enough nutrition for survival, let alone secure a life in dignity as the bill promises. These provisions nevertheless provide important legal rights, which represent a major improvement in the poor's situation if realized. The Food Security Bill also makes provisions for maternity entitlements, feeding of young children, and school meals, which are all going to make a difference if delivered. How does the NFSB facilitate reliable delivery of the entitlements?

The delivery of food will continue to rely on the Targeted Public Distribution System (TPDS) where the number of beneficiaries is artificially capped, and it is the responsibility of the states to identify the beneficiaries. Unfortunately, the states have traditionally been very poor in identifying the poor. This means targeting error by excluding vulnerable people and in their place include people who are already food secure. It also leaves a larger scope for corruption. The scheme would be better off by relying on a near universal system with easily identifiable exclusion criteria such as paying income tax. A big problem with the distribution system is that a large proportion of the food does not reach their intended beneficiaries. The official figure for 2011/12 reveals that the leakage is 35 percent. It is a major improvement from 65 percent in 2009/10 but still an unacceptably high figure. The law includes basic initiatives to reduce corruption such as door-step delivery of grain and computerization of records. The experience of Chhattisgarh and Orissa among other states shows that these steps can go some way in reducing corruption.

But without an effective grievance redressal system corruption and exploitation is likely to continue to limit the realization of the right to food. Unfortunately, the grievance redressal system that is prescribed in the bill is weak and the citizens have no guarantees of remedy if they are not receiving their entitlements. First, the NFSB states that every state must appoint a Redressal Officer in every district who shall hear complaints regarding non-distribution of food grains or meals, but the states can decide the particulars such as the time limit on the decision. Since the complainant will often be poor and hungry, time is a crucial factor. Not providing a time limit reduces accountability and creates opportunities for corruption. Second, the bill states that the maximum penalty for not complying with the rules is a maximum of 5,000 rupees, which will not be sufficient to deter lucrative corrupt practices nor does it reflect the seriousness of the crime which might cost people's lives.

Instead of creating a new grievance redressal system vested with limited power to ensure the entitlements of people, the Right of Citizens for Time Bound Delivery of Goods and Services and Redressal of their Grievances Bill 2011, which is still pending in parliament, should be enacted. This bill covers all service delivery to citizens by government departments. This bill sets a time limit of 30 days for delivery and the maximum penalty for not doing so is 50,000 rupees. The Grievance Redressal Bill would also be a signal that actual implementation of people's rights is a political priority. This is not the only important rights related bill pending in Parliament. The Lokpal Bill 2011, the important anti-corruption law, is also there pending. This is the ninth edition of a bill which was introduced for the first time in 1968 and never enacted!

Article 44 says that persons hold no rights in case of force majeure such as war, flood, drought, lire, cyclone or earthquake affecting the regular supply of food or meals. First, the very purpose of the law is to secure that nobody falls below a minimal threshold of food security. It is in conditions of irregular food supply that state action is most needed. Second, there existing a right means that in case of serious resource constraints because of drought or floods the government should do as much as possible given the conditions. But because of the clause, the central governments and state governments will now be responsible for absolutely nothing. This clause is simply a way of escaping responsibility since it will not be relevant unless a situation arises where people are starving and dying because the central government or the state governments fail to take action when they could have done so.

Article 42 gives powers to food ministry officials to suspend any provision of the law if they think it is not implementable after two years if parliament approve. This basically means that parliament automatically will have the opportunity cut back on the scheme after the election without too much public attention. What "any difficult that arises" means can be defined very broadly without any specific justification.

States are allowed to introduce cash transfers instead of food. The problem with cash transfers has been discussed in another article. One of the main problems is that they do not provide food security since inflation adjustments can only happen with a time lag. There are also great concerns about the actual delivery of money to people with no access to banks as well as widespread corruption by officials and bank employees.

The NFSB contains recommendations about expanding the variety of foods by including pulses, eggs, and oil. But at the same time it includes lots of backdoors, which in practice enables the government to deny the poor the rights they have been promised. That is, the Bill does not take a stand on whether the system should be geared for a comprehensive effort against malnutrition, or whether the right should merely exist on paper. It is impossible to tell what will happen after the election. This ambiguity is a testament to the government's casual approach to the rights of the people despite a rhetorical commitment to ensure these rights. It is of course a big challenge to implement big schemes like the NREGA and the NFSB because of local power structures and the rooted nature of corruption in India. But the magnitude of the task only makes the government's weak attempt seem even less serious.

About the Author: Mr. Jakobsen is a postgraduate candidate at Aarhus University. He is currently interning with the AHRC

This is second part of a 3 part article series on the Food Security Bill.


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