In its latest form, the National Food Security Bill, 2013 promises to address the extreme irony of an ambitious nation holding mountains of food in storage, while masses of its people are undernourished or even starving. The right to food is finally on the threshold of being legislated. Every step taken to widen the coverage of food security schemes is an advance. Yet, the empirical truth is that incremental measures at targeting the needy are a poor substitute for a cohesive, rights-based universal system of food entitlements. There are, no doubt, many positives to the new legislation, such as coverage of up to 75 per cent of eligible priority households in rural areas, the importance given to women as the head of the household for issue of ration cards, inclusion of pregnant and lactating women for free meals (some in government wanted to take away this entitlement from women who bear more than two children but the idea was sensibly dropped), and setting up of State Food Commissions to investigate violations of entitlements. Under the proposed law, it will be up to the States to frame criteria and choose the priority households for food entitlements, an exercise that will inevitably be accompanied by the well-documented troubles associated with targeting any welfare scheme. Exclusion of any deserving household is unfair and divisive. It poses a challenge to States that wish to provide universal access, an issue that is bound to be felt acutely in urban areas attracting tens of thousands of migrant labourers.
The Centre is unwilling to countenance a Universal Public Distribution System on the ground that too much money is involved. Even under the latest Bill, it is argued, the exchequer would have to bear a heavy expenditure of Rs.1.24 lakh crore. Yet, the government has not hesitated to build up expensive food stocks over the years, some of which is left to rot, mainly to pay the high support prices demanded by influential sections of the farm lobby. Moreover, the policy orientation is disproportionately favourable towards some sectors such as infrastructure, compared to food and health care. Evidently, the Food Bill can and should do a lot more, to become near-universal and win over sceptics such as Tamil Nadu, which has opposed it on the ground that it is inferior to the universal PDS in the State. Also noteworthy is the fact that the Chhattisgarh Food Security Act has done better than the Centre’s proposed law in some respects — by supplying subsidised pulses and covering 90 per cent of households, for example. The cause of equity would be better served if the Centre expands the ambit of its law to cover all classes of vulnerable people, including senior citizens and the disabled, for supply of essentials under the PDS. It must then embark on the road to universality in providing access to food as an entitlement.