In a year of sparse rains and spiralling food prices, with hundreds of districts being officially declared as drought-hit, a rally by activists in the capital demands a Food Entitlements Act.

Over 5,000 grassroots activists, agricultural workers, farmers, lawyers, doctors and others coming from 18 States walked to Parliament Street (New Delhi) on November 26, 2009, demanding a comprehensive “Food Entitlements Act” and immediate action in drought-affected areas.

The rally underscored the urgency of addressing pervasive hunger and starvation, especially in a year of widespread drought and spiralling food prices. This issue seems to carry little political weight in a country where, for many in the emergent classes that wield power and influence, the encounter with hunger is at best articulated in ad-lines like “Hungry Kya?”. The Congress Party's election manifesto promised a “National Food Security Act”, but two parliament sessions later, and in spite of drought being declared in 278 districts, there is no sign of a draft Bill. It is at such times of obscene inequity and neglect that citizens, here under the banner of the “Right to Food Campaign”, redeem the pledge of democracy — taking to the streets with the call for “halla bol”, insisting that people's basic needs ought to be the State's priority.

From all walks of life

The sheer diversity amongst the thousands who rallied conveyed the wide range of needs that a Food Entitlements Act would have to address. The participants included agricultural workers from Jagrut Adivasi Dalit Sangathan (JADS); activists of the National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights and other Dalit organisations; women's groups like Jagori, Delhi FORCES and the National Federation of Indian Women; physically challenged activists of Viklang Manch; health workers from Jan Swasthya Abhiyan; trade union workers of the New Trade Union Initiative; students from Delhi University and elsewhere; and members of Gram Swaraj Abhiyan (Jharkhand), Chhattisgarh Mazdoor Andolan, Right to Food Campaign Bihar and many other local organisations. It is not without reason that the Supreme Court already acknowledges nine nutrition-related programmes addressed to different groups as legal entitlements in the “right to food case” (PUCL vs. Union of India and Others, Civil Writ Petition 196 of 2001). These entitlements include mid-day meals for school children under the Mid Day Meal Scheme, maternity support under the National Maternity Benefit Scheme, guaranteed employment under Rural Employment Guarantee Schemes, supplementary nutrition for young children under the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS), subsidised grain under the Public Distribution System (PDS), and pensions under the National Social Assistance Programme, among others. None of these entitlements, the rally demanded, should be diluted in the Food Entitlements Act — on the contrary, they need to be vastly expanded and consolidated.

About half of all Indian children are undernourished, and the proportion of underweight children has remained virtually unchanged in the last 10 years, in spite of rapid economic growth. This is all the more alarming as the first three years of life have a critical, life-long impact on nutrition and health. The “soft issue” of child undernutrition concerns those who cannot offer any “political capital” in electoral politics. It is perhaps for this reason that the UPA government brazenly neglects children's right to food and makes no mention of it in its already feeble promises for the right to food. The rallyists included many women with children strapped on their backs, adding their voice to the demand for better child nutrition programmes (including the universalisation of ICDS) as well as maternity entitlements, crèches, breastfeeding support, and other essential services for women. “Maeder dukkho robe na… babader dukkho robe na… Supreme Court rai diyeche noi-ti jojna” (mothers won't be in pain, fathers won't be in pain, for the Supreme Court has given orders in favour of nine schemes), sang hopeful women from rural Bengal's Paschim Banga Khet Majoor Samiti. Here again, of course, the Food Entitlements Act aims to go much beyond existing Supreme Court orders.

Perhaps the most vocal demands at the rally were those aimed at a complete revamp of the Public Distribution System (PDS), starting with universal — instead of targeted — coverage. So far, the government's only promise, in the name of a “National Food Security Act”, has been a monthly ration of 25 kg of foodgrains at Rs. 3/kg for Below Poverty Line (BPL) households. Strongly rejecting the targeted approach of the current PDS, Kavita Srivastava (petitioner in the “right to food case”) highlighted the arbitrariness and unreliability of the BPL surveys: “We have the Planning Commission telling us that 28 per cent of the population is below the poverty line, Tendulkar Committee gives a figure of 38 per cent, Arjun Sengupta's report indicates more than 78 per cent — which figure does one go by?” Further, economist Jean Drèze explained that according to National Sample Survey data, among the poorest 20 per cent of rural households, almost half do not have a BPL card. And even among those who do have a BPL card, 40 per cent did not get any grain from the PDS in 2004-5. Tamil Nadu, by contrast, has a universal PDS, with 97 per cent of entitled households getting subsidised grain. “The exclusion errors are too high and dangerous. Targeting is administratively unacceptable and socially unethical. If the PDS is made targeted under the new law, our state will be at a huge loss”, said an anxious activist from Tamil Nadu Forces.

At the rally, one would frequently hear the nara “Hum apna adhikaar maangte, nahi kisi se bheekh maangte(We ask for our rights, we don't ask anyone for alms). It is in pursuance of rightful, dignified access to food that the Right to Food Campaign articulates its demand of 14 kg of cereals at Rs. 2/kg, 1.5 kg of pulses at Rs. 20/kg, and 800 gm of cooking oil at Rs. 35/kg under the PDS for every adult. When the question of feasibility of such a demand is raised, another activist from Tamil Nadu Forces points out, “Our government gives us rice, wheat, sugar, maida, kerosene, rava, 10 varieties of spices, and other items… The issue price for rice is Re.1/kg. Look at food prices. The government has to provide a safety net. In fact the Campaign's demand is less than what we already get. We are very worried about that.”

Soaring prices

At an interesting exhibit on the sidewalks of the rally, students of Delhi University displayed a simple food basket, consisting of what it would take for a family of five to achieve a reasonably nutritious diet from the cheapest sources (such as methifor vegetables and chana dalfor pulses). The price tags were quite daunting, with the total coming to Rs. 235 per day — more than twice the wage rate paid under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA)!

Another essential demand of the Campaign is decentralised procurement and distribution of food, as well as de-privatisation of ration shops, preferably to women's groups. As Madhuri Krishnaswamy of JADS insists, “Why should the entire country rely on the produce of Punjab and Haryana? We should produce and consume locally, so that multinational corporations do not decide what we produce. There has to be a ban on their intervention and a ban on exports until we have fed ourselves with dignity.” The demand for de-privatisation, decentralisation and self-management of ration shops is of great importance to make a universal PDS possible as well as to restore accountability in the system. These steps are also tools of democratisation and empowerment.

Not a tall order

Also present at the rally were many people representing vulnerable groups such as the elderly, disabled persons, single women, child-headed households, “primitive” tribal groups and the urban destitute. Among other interventions they demanded Antyodaya cards with special entitlements including PDS items at half the prices, access to cooked meals, and pensions for the elderly or disabled. The Campaign also demands policies to ensure that migrant workers and the urban destitute have access to the PDS and other food security schemes.

All this may seem like a tall order, but nothing less is required to ensure food security for all. Meanwhile another of the rally's slogans will continue to resonate: “Yeh azadi jhoothi hai, desh ki janta bhookhi hai” — freedom is a lie as long as people are hungry.

Chandni Mehta is a volunteer with the Right to Food Campaign. She would like to acknowledge the contribution of Jean Drèze, Usman Jawed and Reetika Khera.

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