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India: Statement On National Food Security Act

India: Statement On National Food Security Act

Peoples' Rights Forum, Assam and groups working on the Right to Food are relieved that the Government of India, after dragging its feet for over four years since 2009 when it announced its intention to legislate a right to food, finally ensured the passage of the National Food Security Act. This Bill has been brought forward at a time when there are 80 million tonnes of grains in the government godowns and increased public action highlighting widespread hunger. This was an opportune time to bring in a comprehensive Food Security Act which addressed issues of expanding production, decentralised procurement and storage and universal distribution along with special measures to reach out to the most vulnerable. However the government has missed this opportunity by passing a minimalistic Bill, giving to only 67\% of the country's population, less than half the cereal requirement per person as a right (average requirement is 10kgs per person ), completely ignoring the inclusion of pulses and oil at affordable prices including the inclusion of community kitchens for the destitute or monitoring of Growth of children against malnutrition and hunger and starvation as a whole. The NFSB fails in its vision by not being ambitious enough and only paying lip service to the right to food. What was needed was a complete reimagining of the food economy in the country by keeping the small and marginal farmer who is producing food and the most vulnerable person who needs food at its centre.

What can however, be stated that, that state's obligation towards food and nutritional security is now a legal right

The other positive aspects in the Bill, which have enormous potential to transform the PDS, especially in poor states are as follows: For the first time the PDS entitlements are delinked from the poverty line based division of the population into BPL and APL. This has two advantages. Firstly, the coverage is expanded tremendously, especially in the poorer states. Therefore in states like UP, Bihar, Jharkhand and Assam the coverage under this Act will be over 80\% in rural areas. The experience of other states such as Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Chhattisgarh has shown that expanding coverage improves the PDS and minimises exclusion errors.

The positive aspect of the Bill is in relation to women's empowerment. The ration cards will be in the name of women. Universal maternity entitlements will be provided to all pregnant and lactating women, to the tune of Rs. 6000 over six months. This recognises women as workers and their right to wage compensation for maternity leave in order to exclusively breastfeed the child. Children from 6 months to 14 years will continue getting meals and hopefully it will be decentralised production with women collectives preparing it rather than contractors as now there is now logic in the bill for bringing them Selection of beneficiaries for the PDS. IT is our belief that, rather than having opaque and complicated procedures for identifying the poor, what is now possible is to exclude the rich and cover the rest of the population with uniform entitlements. If simple exclusion criteria such as keeping out those who are income tax payees, have regular jobs, own four-wheelers etc. are devised; then this can minimise exclusion errors to a large extent. In the current PDS system, about half of those who are poor do not even have BPL cards. However, since the Bill remains silent on the identification criteria, there is a danger that state governments will not adopt the exclusion approach but will come up with some messy system of identification of beneficiaries under the Act. The response of Assa, Delhi and Rajasthan Government's, where the provisions of the Bill are being rolled out first show that state governments are doing just this. The criteria for selection of 84\% Rural and 60\% Urban beneficiaries decided by the Government of Assam does not at all guarantee that those who need it will be included. We demand that a simple exclusion of criteria of Permanent employment, Income Tax payees, and four wheeler for personal used.

The Assam groups would like to continue fighting for a comprehensive food security bill, would like to eliminate the gaps in the bill. The first serious gap in this Bill is that there is no provision for farmers – they are the ones who will be the backbone of the food bill and have to be supported by adequate MSPs, decentralised procurement, incentives for production and so on. The Act should have put in place a mechanism for procurement from all states in the country and directly from small farmers ensuring that they get remunerative prices. In these regards, the forum strongly urges the state to procure the food grains as allotted under the 3rd Scheduled of the Food Bill and not to import the grains from other states.

Second, to make a dent on malnutrition it is not enough to give cereals, that too just 5kgs – for nutrition at least pulses and oil is required even though it is already being done by many state governments. Third, there are no special provisions for community kitchens in urban areas and destitute feeding programmes – these were essential to reach the last person, the destitute, the homeless, the aged and the disabled. Fourth, there are no clear guidelines to keep out commercial interests from taking advantage of the enhanced budgets that will now become available for the schemes that fall under the Bill. Fifth, the grievance redressal mechanisms are not strong enough with low penalties and no effective system at the village and panchayat level.

The response in the mainstream media that blames the Food Bill for the fall in the Rupee and the problems in the economy are not based on facts and only point to the strong lobbies in our country against allowing any spending for the poor. Let us not forget that the additional expenditure on PDS because of this Act is only around 0.25\% of the GDP, while over Rs. 5 lakh crores (~5\% of GDP) of revenue is forgone by the government each year, mostly to favour business and corporate interests.

The NFSA is only a modest first step towards addressing hunger and malnutrition in the country. The Assam campaign will continue its struggle for comprehensive interventions for the food security of all. We will have work to ensure that the Rules are made in such manner that the entitlements provided in the Act are further strengthened. In each state, we have to be vigilant to ensure that there is a proper identification of beneficiaries.

The Parliamentarians of all parties, have to be held accountable to the statements they made on the floor of the House. Parties that introduced amendments to expand and strengthen the Bill must now include these in their manifestos for the coming elections.

Undersigned,

Bondita Acharya, Hema Das, Saito Basumatary, Janki Pegu
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About AHRC: The Asian Human Rights Commission is a regional non-governmental organisation that monitors human rights in Asia, documents violations and advocates for justice and institutional reform to ensure the protection and promotion of these rights. The Hong Kong-based group was founded in 1984.

ENDS

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