A concern about the Food Security Bill is that legal entitlement has been weakened to mean a passive right to receive whatever the state gives

The hallmark of the National Food Security Bill 2011 is that if implemented it will translate into India’s first ever right to food legislation, guaranteeing food as a justiciable, legal entitlement to its people. However, in its current form, the Bill fails to evolve a robust understanding of food security — one in which “food” is valued as a basic fact of life, and “security” translates into a life lived with dignity, with individuals as active seekers of their entitlements.

The repeated use of the word “entitlement” in the Bill makes it possible to conceptualise food security as a right. It allows the Government to speak convincingly of an ostensible shift from a welfare-based to a rights-based approach. The Bill, however, defines food security as the supply of entitled foodgrains and meal. Such a narrow definition assumes the individual to be a passive recipient of a dole and not a proactive claimant of entitlements. Moreover, it sharply contrasts with the understanding of “entitlements” advanced by the Right to Food Campaign (RTFC) — a movement that sculpted the passage for the birth of the Food Bill.

The RTFC emerged in 2001 as an outgrowth of the civil writ petition filed in the Supreme Court by the People’s Union of Civil Liberties (PUCL), Rajasthan, demanding that the country’s rotting foodgrain stocks be used to prevent mass hunger and acute starvation. The petition emphasised the constitutional basis of the “right to food” flowing from Article 21 that guarantees the fundamental right to life. This petition, also known as the landmark PUCL vs. Union of India or the “right to food” case, is ongoing as a public interest litigation.

More inclusive

The RTFC places the “right to food” in a wider, more inclusive bed of “entitlements.” Its shared premise is that to address the structural roots of hunger, the “right to food” should be read together with “entitlements” concerning livelihood security, equitable rights over resources such as land, water and forests, sustainable food systems, right to information, education and health care, social inclusion and non-discrimination. Over the years, it has publicly shared and structured this premise through legal and street advocacy, grassroots engagement and policy advocacy.

In fact, the universalisation of cooked midday meals in schools across India was a direct result of the interim order under the “right to food” case and campaigns around the judgment, steered by the RTFC.

It is against this background of steady advocacy that the Congress, after its re-election in 2009, acted on its electoral promise to legislate the right to food. The United Progressive Alliance-II tasked the Empowered Group of Ministers (EGoM), headed by then Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee to draft the National Food Security Act.

The Bill tabled in Parliament in 2011 was a whittled down version of a visionary draft prepared by the National Advisory Council. It was referred to the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Food, Consumer Affairs and Public Distribution. After a State Food Minister’s meeting to deliberate the committee’s recommendations in February this year, a revised version of the Bill was cleared by the Cabinet the following month. Amendments to the Bill were introduced in the Lok Sabha on May 2, which now urgently await discussion and passage.

Columnists in economic and business dailies have been quick to dismiss the Bill as a “fiscal nightmare.” The Food Minister, who argues that India can no longer afford to forgo the historic opportunity of enacting a National Food Security Act, justly rubbishes this discourse.

For and against

Briefly, the Bill may be lauded for stipulating formidable reforms to the PDS, maternity entitlements for lactating and pregnant mothers and expanding coverage, respectively, to 75 and 50 per cent of the population in rural and urban areas.

Supporters of the Bill, however, are unhappy about the continuation of targeting in PDS, reduction in monthly per capita PDS grain entitlement from 7 kg to 5 kg, omission of the health and preschool education components of ICDS, absence of special entitlements for the most vulnerable sections of the population (persons in destitution or starvation, the elderly, persons with disabilities and single women), proposed introduction of cash transfers and unsatisfactory grievance redress mechanisms, among others. But the bigger concern is that a robust understanding of the “right to food,” premised on hunger has been weakened to mean a passive “right to receive” whatever the state wants to give in the name of food security.

Reframing food security

The successive erosion of the essence of the “right to food” through multiple drafts has divorced it from the context of a silent emergency of malnutrition and hunger in which the RTFC first rooted it. This is evident in the absence of the phrase “right to food” from the text of the Bill.

While noteworthy reforms to the PDS have been duly centre staged, the references to improvements in agriculture, water and sanitation, health care and decentralised procurement and storage, are only tangential (buried in the last schedule of the Bill). Any framing of food security cannot ignore the moral implications of hunger and must argue for a better understanding of the social, beyond the legal and economic, to arrive at a society unconditioned by the fear of powerlessness that hunger can impose.

(Agrima Bhasin is at the Centre for Equity Studies, a New Delhi-based think-tank.)

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