The National Food Security Ordinance, which President Pranab Mukherjee signed into law last week, has been touted as especially attentive to the needs of women and children. A closer inspection of the Ordinance, however, suggests otherwise - its provisions in fact ignore the distinct socio-economic roles of women and children in society. Moreover, the Ordinance glosses over entire subsets of women and children, including those who are arguably the most food and nutrition insecure.
The Ordinance tips its hat to the life-cycle approach, with the objective of providing food security to a child from before conception till after she becomes a mother herself, but ignores their unique needs at different stages of development. The Ordinance views women primarily as mothers and does not effectively take into account their roles as workers, bread-winners and active contributors to the economy. Similarly, because a woman’s role in child rearing is thought to be a natural extension of her 'responsibilities', the specific support that she requires in raising children has not been addressed. The Ordinance largely prescribes a one-formula-fits-all approach and does not do enough to ensure that its provisions cater to the special needs of women and children.
In the context of food security, the extra-familial role of women ought to be a major criterion that merits preferential treatment. For example, women may need to completely withdraw from work when they are exclusively breastfeeding and/or feeding their child four to five times a day until the child is two years old. In order to carry out the latter, women who do not have access to childcare facilities may have to forego full-time work, yet the Ordinance only provides maternity benefits for the first six months after childbirth. This has far-reaching economic consequences for all women, particularly for the female workforce in the informal sector that is not statutorily entitled to neonatal care. The Ordinance also fails to specify the institutional mechanisms through which mothers could take advantage of the provisions therein.
The Ordinance also ignores women’s changing needs, especially during pregnancy. A pregnant woman needs more calories in her third trimester than the first but the Ordinance recommends the same caloric intake throughout the entire gestation period. This could have a potentially debilitating effect on the child’s health as well as that of the mother.
The food security ordinance does not ground the needs of children in the context of interpersonal and household dynamics that often affect resource allocations. The Ordinance entitles children aged six months to three years, as well as malnourished children aged six months to six years, to a take-home ration, but ignores the possibility that the ration could be sold in the market, distributed to other household members (including older and/or male children), or that parents may not have the time or ability to actually prepare the meal for the child.
A similar concern exists with the Ordinance’s provision of Rs. 6,000 in maternity benefits to pregnant women, since the latter may not spend the money on nutrition or may allocate it to other adult household members. Indeed, evidence suggests that poor households do not necessarily increase their food expenditure as their income rises, even if their nutritional needs are not met. That the aforementioned benefit is not indexed to inflation could result in diminishing returns in the future.
For children aged six to 14 years, the Ordinance mandates that they receive a mid-day meal on school days. Yet, it makes no provision for meals on weekends and school holidays and neglects the needs of the approximately 8.1 million out-of-school children as well as those who skip or drop out of school. Moreover, the central and state governments have washed their hands from delivering services promised under the Ordinance during times of “war, flood, drought, fire, cyclone, or earthquake,” when the nutritional needs of the population--particularly children--are arguably the greatest.
Marginalised children, particularly street children, and those between 15 and 18 are neglected entirely by the Ordinance. For example, the Ordinance does not provide for community kitchens in urban areas despite their proven success in Tamil Nadu. Such kitchens could have been scaled up through the Ordinance, but instead this innovative and cost-effective intervention has been ignored. In effect, this means street children, who were anyway not covered by the mid-day meal scheme, will also not be provided food and nutrition.
Despite India being a signatory to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child - which defines a "child” as “every human being below the age of eighteen years” - the Ordinance only applies to children aged 6 to 14 years, thus neglecting an important group above this bracket. According to the latest Demographic & Health Survey, nearly half the girls aged 15-19 years suffer from nutritional deficiencies and seriously risk imparting poor health to their offspring. By omitting this crucial group, the Ordinance does little to break the inter-generational cycle of poor health and nutrition.
Before the Ordinance is passed by Parliament in its monsoon session, the government should take into account women’s and children’s rights in a more holistic manner. By de-hyphenating women and children, and tailoring its provisions to their specific and changing needs, India’s food security law may be able to make a small but positive contribution to addressing the currently abysmal rates of hunger and malnutrition in the country.
Shailey Hingorani and Allison Hutchings work with Save the Children