Concerned over the food situation in India, a group of youngsters met Parliamentarians to share their views of the proposed National Food Security Act.

The “Students for Right to Food” initiative was created out of a need to engage students and legislators with the pressing question of the right to food for all, and to create a flow of information between students and the nation's policy makers. Despite our varied backgrounds, our common concern is regarding the grave situation of food and the nutritional crisis in the country. Seeing great potential in the proposed National Food Security Act to tackle it, we decided to take up this unique opportunity and attempt to influence the direction it took.

The campaign started with a mixed group of students from Delhi University and Jawaharlal Nehru University and has since grown to include students from other universities in Chennai, Mumbai, Bangalore and Jharkhand. After our discussions on the scandalous state of food security and the nutritional crisis gripping the country, we felt that for there to be a greater impact, we had to engage with the elected representatives of our country. In the past few months, we have met more than 80 Members of Parliament (MPs) from across the country to share our views on the proposed Food Security Act and to listen to their opinions.  Most meetings took place in Delhi, but some also in Bangalore and Mumbai. Through this we intend to play a small part in facilitating an informed debate on this issue amongst our legislators, and also to make them realise that young people are carefully watching their actions and hearing their words.

Urgent need

What adds urgency to our discourse on the need for a comprehensive Food Security Act is the experience many of us have had in field surveys and audits in rural areas, primarily based on the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA). Even though our time in the field was limited, it has, nonetheless, enabled us to form an informed perspective on these issues. We have seen the difference legislations like the RTI and NREGA have made in the lives of people who needed them most, especially since seeking information and seeking jobs were established as rights, not government benevolence. What also didn't escape our attention was that the diet of a lot of these people consisted mostly of rice and a watery dal (on a good day), which was far from being wholesome and nutritious.

Meeting with MPs has been an interesting, enlightening and an occasionally entertaining experience, to say the least. A majority of them supported our concerns about the issue, and heard out our views on the need for a comprehensive NFSA. A few challenged our points of view, argued with us and helped us engage with this issue at a greater depth.

We did encounter the occasional MP, like Hassan Khan (Independent) who lectured us on the impropriety of seeking appointments with MPs, and expressed their displeasure at (mere) students seeking involvement in a process better left to “expert committees”, or who were dismissive of our efforts because of our lack of language skills (Rajnath Singh of the BJP, “Your Hindi should be better”) or our “youthful inexperience” (Dr. Ram Singh of INC,“How can you talk about food if you don't know how to make rotis?”) But most were pleasantly surprised to see our group at their doorstep, and were open to listening to our ideas. An enthusiastic MP even treated us to ice-cream after our meeting was over!

Of the majority who did hear us out, most agreed that even though the PDS is currently in a state of mess in many parts of the country because of rampant corruption, it is very important for the rural poor. Many were surprised when we brought up Tamil Nadu's universal and functional PDS. Of course, in the case of MPs from Chhattisgarh, Himachal Pradesh, Kerala and Tamil Nadu at least, we did not need to tell them that the PDS can deliver. Coming from these states, they knew this already. Another issue that came up often was the problem of massive exclusions from the PDS. In order to have access to subsidised grain from the PDS, in most states a household needs to be classified as “below poverty line” or BPL. The proportion of BPL households is fixed by the Central government. This is akin to giving someone a shoe and asking them to fit their foot into it, no matter the size of their feet! We heard innumerable anecdotes of ludicrous instances of inclusions in the BPL figures, from a governor to rich tractor owners. Raghuvir Singh Meena of INC spoke to us about the “farcical selection forms” for BPL families.

To understand the contentious matter of APL-BPL divisions better, some of us went on a BPL Methodology Survey in October 2010. Our teams targeted Rajasthan, Jharkhand and Himachal Pradesh. After the survey, we realised that the criteria for such poverty markers could not be uniform across the whole country, due to diverse socio-economic, cultural and geographic conditions. Despite having slightly more reasonable criteria for categorisation of BPL in our survey, we discovered that many vulnerable households still missed the cut. The often precarious condition of the rural poor means that any mishap or calamity can result in a rapid slide in and out of any predefined parameters of poverty.

Different opinions

Not surprisingly, the MPs had differing opinions on how to tackle these problems. Their responses ranged from Raghuvansh Prasad Singh's (RJD) “Sabko mile, usse accha kya ho sakta hai?” (Can there be anything better than everyone getting (food)?); Vijay Bahugana's (INC) “Sabko kaise de sakte ho?” (How can you give everyone [food]?); to even Aditya Nath Jogi's (BJP),“Muft mein dey kar humein nikkamma banaoge kya?” (Will you make us good-for-nothing by giving free [food]?)

Many, like Lalji Tandon (BJP), countered our demands by speaking of the need to first address the problems of production, storage and supply of food before the idea of universalisation could even be approached. The standard party line we encountered was, “Where are the funds?” This argument is difficult to understand given that, in last year's budget, the government's tax revenue foregone on account of exemption was to the tune of Rs. 5,00,000 crores! Just the diamond industry got tax breaks of more than Rs. 30,000 crores.

The most memorable meetings were with the few MPs — from across the political spectrum – who were willing to speak their minds outside of their party's rhetoric. Dr. Prabha Taviad (INC) said that pilferages in the system needed to be tackled while Pradeep Tamta (INC) said that “universalisation was the only way forward”. Kaptan Singh Solanki (BJP), also a member of the standing committee on Food Security, spoke of the need to address the exclusion errors in determining the BPL population. Young Agatha Sangma, first-time NCP MP from Meghalaya, said, about funding for a universal PDS, that finance was not an issue, it was “merely a matter of the government getting its priorities right”. Echoing a similar sentiment, Chongsheng Chang (NPF) said, “If they [the government] don't have money for the poor, whom do they have money for?" while Tapan Kumar Sen (CPI) lamented the government's, “allergic reaction to the idea of a comprehensive RTF,” and highlighted that by definition, a right had to be universal.

We weren't quite sure what to expect when we first decided to try and bridge the chasm between us and Parliamentarians. Seven months down the line, we reflect on Bhakta Charan Das's (INC) refreshing choice of words, “You [the youth] are our watchdogs! Your future is getting ruined. You have to save your future. You have to direct us!” As we gear up for more meetings for the Budget Session, we hope that the openness we have encountered will be sustained, and that the legislators hold up their part of the deal.

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