Protection from Starvation Bill

The 'Food Security' Bill falls flat as its content does not match its aspirations


Veena S Rao | March 21, 2012

A disconnect runs through the nomenclature, preamble, objectives and content of the National Food Security Bill, 2011. The Preamble goes beyond the Title and states that the Bill provides “for food and nutritional security in human life cycle approach, by ensuring access to adequate quantity of quality food at affordable price….” Even on cursory reading, it is clear that these aspirations are not backed by any substantive content or strategy in the Bill.

Starting with the nomenclature and preamble, the accepted definition of food security, is “permanent access for all to food, nutritionally adapted in quantity and quality, and culturally acceptable, for a healthy and active life.” (World Food Summit 1996) “Nutrition security” as defined by Prof M.S. Swaminathan “involves physical, economic and social access to a balanced diet, clean drinking water, sanitation and primary health care for every child, woman and man”. The general discourse in India perceives ‘food security’ as availability and access to food grains in a household at survival or subsistence level, and unfortunately, it is precisely this perception that has been adopted in the Bill. The Bill defines ‘food security’ as “the supply of the entitled quantity of foodgrains (7 Kgs of rice, wheat or coarse grain) and meal specified under Chapters II, III and IV”. ‘Nutritional security’, an objective in the preamble, is not even defined in the Bill. 

One need not be a public health specialist or a nutritionist to know that while 7 Kgs foodgrains can provide relief against starvation, it cannot provide food or nutritional security. Assuming that actual delivery to a family is assured through an efficient PDS, it translates into 234 gms of foodgrain per person per day = approx 650 calories, as against a Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) of an average of 1800 calories.  To what extent these calories will substitute the existing diet or be additional will be known only after the Act is enacted and implemented. However, 650 calories per day without the necessary protein, micronutrients and vitamins, would stave off starvation, but not provide food or nutritional security, or combat malnutrition, especially child malnutrition. It would also have been more progressive had Section 3 (4) provided for fortified flour, which is PFA approved, and commonly consumed by the elite. Why deny vitamins and micronutrients to the poor?

The Preamble quite erroneously uses the term ‘life-cycle approach’, even though the nutritional needs of the adolescent girl, (the most malnourished in the world), and the critical link in a life-cycle approach, are completely ignored in the Bill. The Bill bunches up ongoing programmes, eg.,ICDS, Midday Meal Programme etc, converts them to entitlements without indicating any mechanism for integrating them in a seamless, cohesive manner, and calls it the life-cycle approach. The pregnant and lactating women’s entitlement is a welcome addition, but sadly the out-of-school children, who are the most vulnerable adolescents are forgotten. 

Confusion persists regarding the nature of the entitlement. In legal terminology, ‘entitlement’ means right to benefits which may not be abridged without due process, whereas ‘right’ gives a legal title and a remedy by law. Sec 3 feebly attempts to clothe the ‘entitlement’ of 7 Kgs foodgrain per person as a right through a note by the side of the section, but curiously, neither ‘right’ nor ‘entitlement’ are defined in the Bill. Chapter IX provides for a Grievance Redressal Mechanism through a District Grievance Redressal Officer, for enforcement of entitlements, investigation and redressal, and  State and Central Food Commissions. However, the powers of the cutting edge District Grievance Redressal Officer are not enumerated, presumably, because the nature of the entitlement remains undefined. Only the National Commission has been given the powers of a Civil Court for summoning persons and requisitioning documents.

Until the confusion regarding enforcement/redressal of the undefined entitlement is clarified, the redressal mechanism is bound to remain crippled. However the superannuating bureaucracy and civil society wannabees would have much to cheer about this new flood of opportunity, this time percolating right down to District Level. In all probability, implementation of the Act will commence from the constitution of these Commissions and top priority will be accorded to equations and ranks, red light cars, free accommodation etc. 

Without going into the rationale of the target group percentages, the biggest lacuna of the Bill is its utter helplessness in defining priority and general households, the responsibility for which is convenient passed on to the State Governments in Chapter VI. The first time use of a Force Majeure Section 52 in a social legislation is unusual. It is precisely in times of war, flood, drought, fire, famine, cyclone, earthquake or any act of God, that the Bill must be implemented with even greater vigour. The Bill shows complete insensitivity and ignorance when dealing with starvation. Starvation, chronic or temporary, is not something that can be identified through lists maintained by State Governments. It can only be captured through surveillance by local communities or committed field functionaries, where no government certificates or seals are required.

The Bill makes innumerable prescriptions to the States, not in the language of partnership as when the Centre legislates for concurrent subjects, but commandingly so, completely violative of the federal principle. There has been no serious consultation with the States, no cost-sharing formula is in place, which is perhaps why the Bill has no clue as to how to execute even its cut-and-paste objectives. Consequently, all operational and financial responsibility, including responsibility for finding solutions, is cast upon State governments.

The Bill, like the Holy Roman Empire, provides neither food nor nutrition nor security as claimed in the preamble. On final reading, it appears to be a National Starvation Prevention Bill, high on aspirations, but with neither substantive, strategic or operational backup, nor a convincing delivery mechanism to deliver the entitlement. The entire exercise, despite its pretentious objectives turns out to be yet another Scheme that government does not know how to implement, except through reiterating previously failed solutions.



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