Food rights and institutional governance in India

The Food Security Act is an ambitious piece of welfare legislation which has failed to fill the existing institutional gaps

sanskriti

Sanskriti Rastogi | March 7, 2014



There has been a paradigm shift from food production to food governance in the country. Food production emphasizes on productivity enhancement and agrarian reforms whereas food governance entails production, pricing, processing, transportation, storage, distribution of the food and related monitoring. Institutional support at all stages is indispensable for effective governance.

Thomas Pogge, the famous German philosopher, calls for social institutional reform in order to effectuate the Rawlsian egalitarian principle. In any democratic setup, the functioning of such institutions in food justice delivery is of immense importance. The roots can be found in Global Difference principle wherein the social institutions work in such a fashion so as to benefit the least advantaged section of the society. Unfortunately the deep-rooted corruption in such systems speaks volumes of the casual effort of the government to effectuate food entitlements which the beneficiaries have been promised by law. One after the other, legislations pile up not fixing the problem of effective delivery, and get lost in the political quagmire of the country. The government goes on legalizing entitlements but nothing happens to the justice delivery mechanism. The institutional governance goes into void. Amartya Sen has also advocated the fact that there is no such thing as apolitical food problem. We require a strong political will to reform the institutions.

The Food Security Bill which was enacted into law on September 12, 2013, is also facing the danger of getting lost in political theatrics. The reasons are simple: there is a big question mark on the reliable delivery of the entitlements.  The major folly of the Act has been the discretion put on the states to identify priority households, adequacy of food, and the exclusion of liability of the state in case of force majeure, which tends to go against the very spirit of the act.

In a country like India, which comes in high risk zone as per the food security risk index 2013, the central government should not be entirely exempted as right to freedom from hunger is an absolute right. The same has been reiterated in Art 11 of ICESR (International Council for Economic, Social, Cultural and Political Rights) wherein, the right to freedom from hunger is an absolute right but right to adequate food is not. The preamble of the Food Security Act also mentions “adequate food”. Adequacy has several dimensions: first it requires that the food contain sufficient macro- and micro-nutrients for optimal physical and mental development and maintenance and to support desired activity levels. Second, food adequacy requires that food be “free from adverse substances.” Finally, food adequacy requires that access to food be ensured in a way that meets cultural or consumer acceptability standards and does not violate social norms. The five kg per person per month entitlement and non-inclusion of pulses in the food entitlement in the Act is definitely neither quantitatively not qualitatively sufficient.

It is food sovereignty coupled with notional adequacy for a population to be called as food secure which are clearly absent in the present scheme of Act. The legislation cannot completely exempt the centre’s liability in case of force majeure. How long will the state be not responsible in such situations? Who will be responsible for such casualty? All these questions remain unanswered.

If we look at the records, the states have not been very effective in identifying the poor. In Rajasthan, 69 percent of rural population and 53 percent of the urban population has been covered in proposal whereas population below poverty line in Rajasthan is 24.8 percent of the entire population. Seven states have already adopted the Act whereas two more are in the process. Their relative concerns of poor shall speak volumes about the vote-bank politics. Often the food-secure population is counted in, whereas the vulnerable are left out due to innate corruption in their mechanism. Jean Dreze suggested the introduction of a ‘quasi-universal system’ based on specific inclusion criteria as well as a system of food coupons which possess a unique identification number and hologram to track the efficacy of PDS system. The food corporation of India has given disappointing results in the past. The Act does nothing to amend its function or powers.

The redressal agencies functioning have to be quick because the complainants are going to be poor and hungry. No such mandate has been incorporated in the act. The redundancy of the above agency is very much foreseeable.

Food security is a function of multiple variables which cannot be achieved by single pronged strategy. The Act appears to be an ambitious piece of welfare legislation which has failed to learn the lessons from the past. The cart which rolls with missing wheels is bound to stumble. Hence, it is important to fulfill the institutional gaps first before arduously bringing out a new piece of legislation every time.

(The writer is currently pursuing her masters in business law from National Law School of India University.)

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