The new draft of the Food Security Act 2010 doesn't go far enough to see that the most needy get adequate food and nutrition. In fact, it promises much less than what is currently covered under the PDS system.

Although the ravages of famines which decimated tens of thousands of lives are relegated to history, hunger still haunts millions of dispossessed homes and city streets across this land. State granaries are full, the economy is resurgent and many of the world's wealthiest people are Indians. Yet, one in every two Indian children is unable to access enough food for her body and brain to develop to their full potential. There is little more desperate and shaming for a parent than to be unable to feed one's child. In many homes — hidden in the shadows of our newly accumulated wealth — men and women carry on their shoulders the burden of suffering and mortification of this want, many days every year. They cut back on their own intake of food from three meals to two, and from two to one. They still have to labour strenuously to survive; they wilt and age rapidly, or succumb to curable ailments.

Countries much poorer than India — in our neighbourhood as well as in the poorest regions of Africa — have fared far better in battling hunger and malnourishment. Governments in India procure and distribute millions of tons of subsidised food, run feeding centres for children, and feed a hundred and forty million students daily in schools. Yet, they fail to stem the wasting of the bodies — and spirit — of millions of our people. Official surveys admit that in an entire decade, the percentage of malnourished children has reduced by just one percentage point, from 47 to 46 per cent.

Therefore, the pledge by the UPA government to enact a food security bill carried within it the rare potential of actually altering the destinies of masses of India's poorest women and men, boys and girls. In a country which has both the resources and the food to end want among all its people, the stubborn persistence of hunger and malnutrition amounts to a spectacular — and culpable — failure of governance. Today reports of starvation from many corners of the country are brushed away only with hot denials by public officials. They do nothing to alter the diminishing daily search for food — through back-breaking underpaid toil, debt bondage, distress migration, foraging or begging — which constitutes the reality of millions of our people. It is this that the law can change.

Disappointed

I hoped, therefore, to see enacted a law which creates binding obligations on public officials to reach sufficient food to every resident of this vast land, and hold them gravely accountable for failures to do so. Instead, all that the draft Bill prepared by the Ministry headed by Sharad Pawar and approved by the Group of Ministers contains, as emerges from news reports, is a legal obligation jointly on the Central and State governments, to supply 25 kg of subsidised rice or wheat a month to families deemed by governments to live below the ‘poverty-line'. Failure to reach this quota of food grain to these poor families would entitle them to a food security allowance.

The proposed law adds nothing whatsoever to impoverished people's rights and access to sufficient food for an active and healthy life. In fact, it actually reduces these entitlements. The existing Public Distribution System already provides for moresubsidised food grain per poor household than the proposed law: 35 kg against the 25 kg promised in the law. This already has the force of law, through directions by the Supreme Court that governments cannot reduce the supply or raise prices of subsidised food grain. Many state governments cover much larger populations than the quotas of people deemed by the Planning Commission to be poor, and supply them grain at lower prices than proposed under the law.

All that is new in the law is the assurance of a cash allowance if governments do not supply the food grain. But this is ominous, as it may well pave the way for eventually substituting the Public Distribution System (PDS) with cash transfers, as is already being advocated vigorously in several official and non-governmental forums. But many studies have established that food is far more likely to actually reach the mouths of children and women in a household than cash in the hands of the male adult family head. And PDS is not just about supplying food to consumers; it involves guaranteeing a floor price to farmers for their produce, and stabilising prices by moving food grain to scarcity areas. The erosion of PDS through systems of cash transfers would further undermine food security by failing to guarantee a remunerative price to farming households, many of whom are among the most food insecure people in the country, and by diluting price stabilisation capacities of governments.

The law also does nothing to address the many near-fatal problems with the design and implementation of PDS today. Systems of identifying India's poor are seriously flawed, and many studies show that they leave out many of our most impoverished people. The official estimates of numbers of poor people, which form the basis of quotas of subsidised food grain available under PDS, are contested and vary widely, which further reduces the actual reach of cheap food to those who most need it. People are malnourished not just because they lack cereals, but also proteins and fat; but the PDS does not incorporate pulses and oil. There is nothing in the law to convince us that corruption and leakages that typically characterise PDS will be addressed, such as by eliminating private traders and entrusting Panchayats with running PDS and ensuring them realistic margins.

Ominous silence

Even more critically, the PDS is only one of many initiatives through which governments reach food to people. The law is silent about all of these other programmes, and creates no legal guarantees, such as for promoting breast-feeding for infants, pre-school feeding through the ICDS, school feeding programmes, maternity allowances and feeding, and pensions for the aged, single women headed households, and disabled people.

By contrast, the draft bill commended by Congress President Sonia Gandhi to the Prime Minister contained many of these comprehensive guarantees for securing food for infants, children, women, the aged and the infirm. Once these are contained in the law, rather than their current status just as government schemes, governments cannot withdraw or dilute these, and people can go to court against public officials and governments which fail to provide them. This draft also provided for full coverage of various vulnerable groups with highly subsidised rations, such as single women headed households, old and infirm people, the disabled, homeless people, and most disadvantaged tribal and dalit communities.

This alternate draft law went further to create new entitlements for some of the most food insecure people who are not covered by any existing schemes. For instance, school meals cover children who are in school, but the most malnourished children are those who can never enter school. Therefore, for street children, the alternate provides for secure food through residential schools. For urban migrants and homeless people, it provides for community kitchens.

It is often said far too lightly that one decision can sometimes change the course of history. But this is indeed one such decision. For people who have for centuries been condemned to live with the hopeless suffering of hunger, a comprehensive food security bill — which creates detailed obligations for governments to secure food and nutrition for people who live most with want and deprivation, whose lives still remain frozen in time as the rest of us race ahead — can indeed alter the destinies of the most wretched of our earth.