ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Trivialising Food Security

What, at a minimum, should the proposed National Food Security Act encompass?

It was an election promise of the Congress Party. Then, when the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance came back to power, it was part of its 100-day agenda. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh even declared, “Not a single Indian will be allowed to go hungry”. Yet, the Empowered Group of Ministers (EGM) entrusted with the task of getting the government’s act together on “food security” more than merely treated the subject as unimportant, of utter inconsequence, prompting Congress Party President Sonia Gandhi, who has a more down-to-earth understanding of the political process, to intervene in order to restore its significance.

If one were to go by EGM’s frame of the draft National Food Security (NFS) Act, 2010, frankly, it might best be seen as a design of how not to end malnutrition and hunger. The principal concern seems not to ensure food security to all and therefore to ensure a nutritional minimum, but to contain the government’s expenditure under the proposed NFS Act. After all, meeting the demands of the fiscal deficit is more important than putting in place universal rights to as basic a requirement as food. The draft bill as drawn up by the EGM denies the notion of universal rights, keeps entitlement to as little as 25 kg a month and even seeks to vary the issue price! The continuing debate within government and outside about how many poor there are in India has come in handy for the “cost-cutters”. But food security means a right to food and rights cannot be “targeted”, they have to be universal. Therefore, the only meaningful legislation on food security is one that covers the entire population. Independent estimates of a universal scheme under which every household would be entitled to 35 kg of cereals every month are that it will cost an additional Rs 25,000 crore over the current annual expenditure of Rs 55,000 crore on the public distribution system (PDS), or less than 0.5% of India’s gross domestic product as incremental expenditure. Should the government then even think of denying the right to food on “cost considerations”?

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