Feels the project has been reduced to “a scheme that doles out free meals and subsidised foodgrains”

The Sonia Gandhi-led National Advisory Council may not have officially commented on the government's draft Food Security Bill — which is still to be cleared by the Cabinet. But many NAC members see the changes made in their version as having “severely compromised the overall vision” of the Council and reduced the food security project to “a scheme that doles out free meals and subsidised foodgrains.”

NAC sources said that while the Council, as a body, saw its job done with the handing over of its draft bill to the government, they are, nevertheless, waiting to see how the government bill is received after it is introduced in Parliament and then sent to a Standing Committee. At that stage, these sources said, those NAC members who are also members of the Right to Food Campaign, would use that platform to lobby MPs. Harsh Mander, who had headed the Working Group that drafted the NAC's Food Security Bill, pointed out that in the run-up to the enactment of the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act and the Right to Information Act during the United Progressive Alliance's first tenure, there were similar problems.

But, interestingly, the government draft scores over the NAC's recommendations in one section. While the government has rejected the NAC's recommendations for households headed by single women, who the Council stresses are “often the most vulnerable and impoverished,” in its Chapter V11, entitled “Women Empowerment,” the government bill says women aged 18 and above will, in all priority and general households, be “deemed to be the head of the household for the purpose of distribution of ration cards.”

The NAC's disappointment, however, centres round two key issues. One, the government draft does not just reduce the percentage of rural households to be covered, from the NAC's suggested figure of 90 to the government's 75, it has slashed entitlements for general households from four to three kg of foodgrains per person, while saying the Centre can modify or amend the essential entitlements by a notification: the NAC had mandated that the rates for priority households be not revised upwards for at least 10 years from the date of notification of the Act.

Two, the government draft ignores the NAC's “life cycle approach,” omitting its provisions for maternity benefits of Rs. 1,000 per month for six months, dropping the special provisions for malnutritioned children, and watering down the rights suggested for those living in conditions of starvation.

The NAC had suggested several measures to reform the Public Distribution System, as it feels that unless the new law provides a comprehensive and reformatory framework, the key entitlements under this Act cannot be realised. These do not find a place in the government draft, just as the provision for an internal grievance redress mechanism has been rejected by the government on the ground that the existing mechanism at the district, State and national levels is adequate. The provisions on dereliction of duty and penalties have also been dropped from the government draft, and it has introduced the concept of cash transfers, anathema to the NAC.

Finally, the government draft, invoking the principle of force majeure, says persons belonging to priority and general households will not have the right to claim compensation for failure of supply of foodgrains in case of war, flood, drought, fire, cyclone, earthquake or any act of god.