Zoya Hasan

The time has come for a comprehensive right-to-food law to tackle the deprivation and food insecurity that haunts India.

Over the last decade or so, a series of developments have drawn attention to the problem of food security. These are the persistence of hunger in many parts of the country being juxtaposed with food surpluses and stocks; the adverse impact of globalisation on agriculture and rising food prices resulting in widespread food insecurity; media reports of starvation deaths, hunger and malnutrition and, finally, the Supreme Court rulings in response to public interest litigation.

Despite reports of hunger and rampant malnourishment, the government has not paid enough attention to ensuring food security. In the last few years civil society campaigns, public interest litigation and directions issued by the courts have converted the benefits of nutrition-related schemes into legal entitlements. As a consequence, food security is emerging as a significant policy area for public intervention and public demands stressing a rights-based approach to ensure it. The central idea of the right-to-food campaign that started in 2001 is simply this: the right to food is one of the basic economic and social rights to achieve substantive democracy, and without it political democracy is incomplete. It is directly linked to the right to life, a fundamental human right enshrined in the Constitution and conceivably all human rights conceptions.

The essential demands of the campaign have to be seen in the context of the nutritional emergency in India and the need to address the structural roots of hunger. India’s track record, as far as the commitment to tackling hunger and malnutrition is concerned, is among the worst. The National Family Health Survey (2006) showed that the child under-nutrition rate in India is 46 per cent. This figure is almost double that of sub-Saharan Africa, which is economically poorer than India. In the Global Hunger Index (2008), India ranks 66th among the 88 countries surveyed by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI). It comes below Sudan, Nigeria and Cameroon, and slightly above Bangladesh. The recent rise in food prices has possibly made matters worse in terms of people’s access to food. The blame for this nutritional emergency has to be shared by the persistence of widespread poverty, poor implementation of government programmes (especially Integrated Child Development Services and the Public Distribution System), and various other factors that interact in many ways to produce this dismal result.

Few countries in the world can claim to have achieved total food security. Even fewer of them have introduced legislation to guarantee it. Implementing this right requires not only equitable and sustainable food systems and increases in agricultural productivity but the purchasing power to buy the necessary food. This, in turn, requires means of livelihood security such as the right to work and social security. Since those at risk of hunger are poor and also socially powerless, discriminated and marginalised, an enabling legal entitlement can weaken the power of entrenched interests arraigned against them, and empower the intended beneficiaries by assigning the responsibility and culpability of the government since the primary responsibility for guaranteeing these entitlements rests with the state.

The Congress’ 2009 election manifesto promised to enact a law to facilitate access to sufficient food for all, particularly the most vulnerable and deprived sections of society. The party is keen to implement this promise, which has much to do with the widely held view that the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) played an important part in the Congress’ election victory. Not surprisingly, making access to food a fundamental right is likely to become the centrepiece of the United Progressive Alliance’s second innings. Politically the main challenge is to ensure that the Right to Food law is not limited to the fulfillment of the Congress election promise of 25 kg of grain a month at Rs. 3 a kg for Below Poverty Line families: this would amount to whittling down the people’s access to food in the guise of the new law. However, Sonia Gandhi’s very first letter to the Prime Minister on the food security issue after the installation of the UPA government raises the hope that the proposed legislation will offer a more comprehensive guarantee of food security for the poor.

The draft of the Right to Food (Guarantee of Safety and Security) Bill has been widely criticised for its excessive focus on freezing the number of the poorest-of-the-poor who need guaranteed food entitlements. Since then there has been a big debate on the scale and scope of the proposed law.

Three conceptual issues are critical to the provision of an effective food security law. These pertain to how much to give, at what prices, and to whom. On the first issue, there is a consensus that the entitlement under the Antyodaya Anna Yojana which stands at 35 kg of foodgrains per poor household, which is anyway below national nutritional norms, should not be cut.

On the second issue, the rate of Rs. 3 a kg for rice and wheat that the Congress has promised is higher than the existing price of foodgrains available to BPL households in several major States and this would mean paying more for less foodgrains. The entitlements should not be cut to 25 kg, and BPL families receiving wheat at Rs. 2 should obviously continue to do so.

Of the three issues, the criterion for identifying beneficiaries and coverage under the food security law is the most crucial. Taking a minimalist view, the Food Ministry proposes to find a way to limit this list to BPL households, at a level decided by the Centre, and without giving much flexibility to the States to expand the list. However, BPL estimates vary sharply because of the different methods used to determine the beneficiaries. While the Planning Commission estimates that there are just over 62 million BPL families, State governments claim the existence of nearly double that number. Adding to this debate, a recent report by a Supreme Court-appointed panel on food security says the number of food-insecure people is larger than the figures of people officially declared as being poor.

Limiting access to the public distribution system in terms of food to BPL families is at variance with the current political expectations from a law that must ensure food for all to combat widespread malnourishment and hunger. Narrow targeting of food security on the basis of income poverty is likely to exclude a large part of the vulnerable population. The key to an inclusive approach to food security is a guarantee of universal access rather than getting bogged down in ascertaining the target group. For this it is necessary to delink food security from poverty which would help avoid the mistakes inherent in targeting: unfair exclusion of the really poor and the gratuitous inclusion of the non-poor. Above all, a law to make access to food a fundamental right for all must not be hindered by the question of additional fund allocation or subsidy.

Recent campaigns for the right to food, education, work, and information have brought issues of deprivation and livelihood centrestage as never before. Some of these campaigns have produced substantial results in the form of the NREGA and the Right to Information Act. The time has now come to put in place a comprehensive right-to-food legislation that can begin to tackle the colossal deprivation and food insecurity that continues to haunt the country. A food security law will be effective only if it is based on universal access and ensures that the nutritional requirements of every citizen are met.

This also means that the entitlement must be individual and not household-based. Based on individual entitlements, such a law would be able to avoid the difficulties faced by many of the rural development programmes, including the NREGS, which are only nominally rights-based and are heavily dependent on the benevolence and discretion of the implementing government. Such a law will not only give an impetus to the UPA’s paradigm of inclusive politics but underline the important point that the right to food, to health, to education, and to employment are interdependent and incomplete without one another.