June 2, 2023


Be Inspired By Food

Arm-Twisting With Hungry, Not With Hunger

Proposed National Food Security Act in India

There is acceptability that state should legitimize the people’s right to food, while food security of old aged, destitute, single women and widow, people with stigmatized diseases and occupations, homeless, primitive tribal group and excluded communities must be griped, in contrast to the state’s constitutional duty defined under fundamental rights and directive principals to the state policy. Can you believe that a regime elected by the people can prepare and come out with a draft of food rights legislation that would keep a very large section of its own citizens wounded of hunger and exploitation? If yes, then more then 400 million people (the difference between planning commission’s estimates of poor people and the number who are nutritionally in-secured according to Prof. Utsa Patnaik and Arjun Sengupta) will still be living and dying with hunger. A scan through the concept being followed by the Empowered Group of Ministers (EGoM) makes it clear that if the National Food Security Act proposals are approved, with its present understanding, then in the coming days, chronic hunger, malnutrition and inequality would reach its altitude. The alliance national government at centre that calls itself progressive has taken steps to implement such a National Food Security Act under which all families below poverty level would get 25 kg of food grains at Rs 3 per kg. In context of rising prices, drought, in-depth starvation (most of which are resultant of economic policies of previous governments), such limited laws are totally irrelevant and without use. These proposed entitlements are controversial and would promote exclusion further.

The action related to the new law is being taken at a time when India is considered one of the fastest growing economies of world (actually an employment less and unequal development), but it is also the country where maximum undernourished children reside. There are about 360 billionaires in the country, but 93 percent of the workforce is in unorganized sector having no legal security provisions and protection measures from the state. Despite National Rural Employment Guarantee Act in place, the labourers get only Rs 30-40 of wages for a day of labour that too several days after the work is done. The price of food grains is spiraling and nutritious food is out of reach for most of the people and yet the finance minister, the agriculture minister and also the prime minister feel pride in announcing from the public and private platforms that control over the price rise is out of their hands. They fail to remember that it is not a situation to take pride in but to feel shameful of. The available buffer stock of food grains was filled with two times the needed food grains, yet the corporate players in food grains sector were allowed to take economic benefit of the hunger of common people. The majority of population in country – about 64 percent – gets livelihood from agriculture and yet agriculture is facing one of the worst scenarios. Painfully, those who produce food and work hard to make us food secure are bound to sleep hungry. The per capita food grain availability is dwindling and the farmers are forced to commit suicide or leave agriculture. Continuing droughts have made the situation worse. The promises that were repeatedly made during elections are being violated by the political parties in power.

At present, hunger and malnutrition is channelising the violation of fundamental right to life and survival repeatedly but the state is not ready to consider food and nutrition security as indispensable rights of people. Therefore it has decided that under the proposed National Food Security Act, only one third of the needy people would be provided a part of food requirement. They have restricted the rights to 25 kg of ration. The fact that a family of five members requires minimum of 60 kg food grain and pulses per month has been totally disregarded. Along with price rise and perils of livelihood, the way people are caught in web of malnutrition; there is a need to at least double the proposed eligibility of grains.

The Below Poverty Line factor has been made the base for the new law. We all know that the defining poverty on only expenditure based indicators and flawed BPL identification has become the biggest State patronized scam and deception of present times. To absolve itself of the accusations, the government has played with the statistics to show the poverty at lower levels, but during the last ten years it has repeatedly become apparent that economists and capitalist policy makers are engaged in statistical tricks with the poverty figures. Arjun Sengupta, in his report on workers of unorganized sector has shown that 77 per cent people are trying to survive by spending Rs 20 a day. Would these people be considered out of ambit of poverty? Then Prof. Utsa Patnaik says that the basic need of rural people is about 2400 calories per day and for urban people it is about 2100 calories per day, but 76 percent people do not get these essential calories, meaning stomach full of nutritious food. Would these 840 million people be not considered poor? The National Family Health Survey (NFHS-III) shows that between 1998-99 and 2005-06, the malnutrition among children has gone down by merely one percent, but the Government of India did the mysterious effort of bringing down the poverty figures by ten percent during this period. It considers that only 28.3 percent people meaning about 31 Crore people (6.5 Crore) families are below the poverty line. Actually these are those people who are in or around starvation line and not below poverty line.

After intervention of the Supreme Court and lots of public debate, the Union Rural Development Ministry gave the responsibility of analyzing the indicators and identification process to a committee of experts headed by retd. IAS official Dr NC Saxena, who said that in any circumstances, 50 percent of the rural populace in the country would have to be considered as poor. He has recommended that rather than depending on indices like BPL in the matters of food and nutrition, everyone should be provided right to food security. During same time, the Planning Commission of India also appointed the Prof. Suresh Tendulkar Committee which held 41.8 percent of the rural populace as poor. These studies have proved that despite living in poverty, the Government of India is doing a planned effort work of keeping about hundreds of people out of ambit of poverty.

When it is almost sure that in the present scenario when the increasing perils of food insecurity, price rise, change in priorities of production, increasing intervention of market, lowering reach to food and rampant corruption is rapidly inflating the hunger zone and is slowly taking over lives of people completely, in such situation, the talks of food security as made by EGoM sounds like less of security and more of business and politics. In a meeting of EGoM, member of this groups and senior minister AK Antony very rightly pointed out that statistics and economics could not cloud the political mandate, as envisaged by Congress president Sonia Gandhi, behind the proposed Bill.

Still only distribution aspect is in the center and no thought is being given for the policy intervention to protect, promote and preserve the food production aspect rather then concentrating on export-import of food grains and other grains. Farmers should be protected and big corporates must not be allowed unusual tax and duty exemptions to import grains and create crisis of food in country. During last five years, first 4 million ton of food grains were exported by overlooking the domestic needs and when hunger started spreading in the country, grains were imported from other countries and companies on double the cost. Even today on the name of government purchase, 75 percent of grains is being procured from only 5 states, forcing farmers in other states to develop lackadaisical attitude in farming, especially for food and cereals and gradually giving it up. Even now, the government showing political will by declaring that priority would be given to grains production and would immediately design a decentralized procurement mechanism for all the states wherever possible so that the farmers’ interest could be protected. The union government of course keeps saying that efforts would be made to bring agriculture into folds of progress, but no linkages of their commitment could be seen while a draft of NFSA was prepared by EGoM?

The bill prepared by EGoM has simply ignored old aged, infirm, single women and widow, disabled and other excluded sections of the society by saying that if it deemed proper then the schemes meant for these sections could be linked to 25 kg grains provision, but institutionalized schemes like ICDS and MDM would be kept out of it. Freedom from Hunger with nutritional security is a children’s fundamental right in all circumstances but in a fastest progressing country, where half the children are malnourished, the government does not feel appalling at indicating that nutrition would not be a legal right of children. It is seems this group is not in a position to internalize the needs of these particular groups and just trying to satisfy the statistics and economics’ of the act.

We have been noticing that since 1991, when policies for liberalization were adopted, whenever there are talks of civil and economic rights and community control over natural resources, the policy makers give a very scrawny logic of lacking resources? In contrast the government does not at all feel hesitant to provide benefits or exemptions to the companies and corporations out of the taxes. Very clearly public resources have been used to subsidize the private profit. During last year itself, taxes worth Rs 4,18,096 Crore were waived off for the rich people of the country while the tax theft goes up to the extent of Rs One Lakh Crore per year. Comparatively government allocates only Rs 39000 Crore for NREGA and Rs 43000 Crore for subsidized food grains. Billions of rupees are lying in the Swiss Banks while several billion rupees are being spent on unnecessary display schemes and programs like the Commonwealth Games when the stomachs of the poor are empty.

It is worth mentioning that 46 percent of children in country are malnourished and this rate is double that of Sub-Saharan Africa. Not only this, it is shameful that the maternal mortality rate is very high in India and one of the main reasons is malnourishment amongst women. Apart from Universalisation of public distribution system, nutrition and public health programs, no other step can bring about any change in the situation.

Sachin Kumar Jain