Prioritising Food Security by Dr Mohammad Manzoor Alam (JULY 19, 2013)

Earlier this month the Union cabinet approved the National Food Security Ordinance. It was a bold and timely decision as proper legislation is time-consuming and hunger cannot wait.

The National Food Security Bill, 2011 is yet to be passed by Parliament, although it has already been scrutinised by a Standing Committee. Considering the committee’s views amendments to the Bill have been introduced in Parliament.

Method of delivering food security, identification of beneficiaries and the financial implications have been issues of debate. Some have pointed out that the development of economic opportunities for the weaker sections would be better than putting them on dole. However, an important point that this perspective misses is that the poor have to survive in short term to be able to avail of economic opportunities in the long term.

Hence the ordinance is a timely intervention. A more nuanced legislation will follow.

The National Food Security Ordinance, promulgated by President Pranab Mukherjee, gives 67 per cent of India’s population the right to subsidised food grain to ensure food and nutritional security.

The ordinance has an inbuilt grievance readressal mechanism and penalty for non-compliance by public servants or any other authority. Under it up to 75 per cent of the rural population and up to 50 per cent of the urban population is entitled to five kg of food grain per month at the subsidised prices of Rs 3 per kg (rice), Rs 2 per kg (wheat), and Re 1 per kg (coarse grains).

Besides that the poorest of poor households would continue to get 35 kg of food grain per month under the Antyoday Anna Yojna at the same rate. The identification of eligible households has been left to the states and Union Territories.

This Bill, and the interim arrangement of an ordinance, has been very close to the heart of the UPA chairperson, Mrs Sonia Gandhi. Thus it has a special focus on nutritional support to women and children, an area in which India has a very poor score compared even to the developing and most undeveloped countries.

Pregnant women and lactating mothers will get nutritious meals as per the prescribed nutritional norms. Women will also receive maternity benefit of at least Rs 6,000 for six months and children in the age group of six months to 14 years will be entitled to take home ration or hot cooked food, as per nutritional norms.

The Central government will provide funds to states/UTs in case of short supply of food grains from Central pool. The Centre will assist states in meeting the cost of intra-state transportation, handling of food grain and fair price shop dealers’ margins. The ordinance also contains provisions for reforms in public distribution system (PDS).

To sum it up, the ordinance is one of the most sweeping and ambitious measures meant to empower and protect the economically weak and vulnerable. In what is a clear case of empowerment of women, the cards will be made in the name of the senior most woman in a household, aged 18 years and above. The UPA government deserves support and appreciation for such a deeply empowering move.

However, a great caution has to be exercised in implementing the programmes. As much as 40 percent “leakage” (misappropriation) has been reported in the past in the PDS and allied areas. Lack of supervision has led to a maximum amount of food grains meant for school meals in the villages being sold off in open market, instead of reaching the beneficiaries.

Lack of standardisation and quality control led earlier this week to the death of 21 children in Bihar after consuming free school meal. Many more fell ill. Later it was found that the meal was cooked in an empty can of pesticide.

The state must ensure complete quality control in cooking and food handling under this programme to avoid its failure. Strict accountability at every stage must be enforced to make it meaningful.


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