Do not dismiss food bill: It will have ripple effect
Many in the opposition contend that the food security bill tabled in parliament earlier this week will be ineffective and that is nothing but another colossal waste of the taxpayers’ money. While focussing on the political exigencies of the UPA may reflect the opposition’s lack of imagination, the government would be well advised to heed to the criticism offered by some of the more respected activists and academics in the country.There are several lacunae in the bill, and these must be filled if the targeted beneficiaries are to profit from the landmark measure. However, even if one agrees that the bill could be stronger, there are several worthy reasons why we should support it and not stand against it.
First, the bill will make governments and political parties more accountable. The provisions under this legislation legalise entitlements. Governments will be held responsible if they don’t deliver. The bill will make it mandatory for them to provide food security directly to those who cannot access it for reasons beyond their control. Thus, it will serve to empower the citizens of India, who will be able to demand food security from their government as a right that is assured to them through this bill.
In 2010, the UN special rapporteur on the right to food noted that “making the right to food a constitutional right ensures its permanency in a country’s legal framework and detracts it from the political realm and possible changing political environments”. In India’s case, the right to food bill will be especially powerful because power relations will be less critical in determining access to food. Indeed, it may contribute towards weakening the feudal nature of Indian society.
In a world where food price volatility has become a norm, such laws can also insulate (to some degree) households from slipping into poverty and provide a cushion for those who are already very poor.
Second, the bill will make food security an issue of vital political concern. Despite its acknowledged importance, food security has never been a mainstream electoral issue. Failure to deliver now will have important consequences for electability. This bill will compel national and regional parties to take this issue more seriously. Also, even if the bill (in its present form) does not ensure nutritional security (because it primarily addresses the foodgrain component of nutrition security), it will still enable activists and other stakeholders to steer the debate in the right direction on what we need to do to tackle the shocking malnutrition rates in India.
Third, the bill will make food security a priority for all states and expedite search for novel solutions to solve this challenge. States such as Tamil Nadu, Chhattisgarh, and Andhra Pradesh have successfully implemented their own food distribution systems, while many others continue to struggle. This bill can provide the necessary impetus to states that have fallen behind to learn from the leaders, many of whom have deployed innovative measures (such as transferring ownership of fair price shops to locally elected bodies) to tackle implementation and structural weaknesses in current delivery systems. The laggard states can work with the centre to integrate existing schemes with the new bill. In cases where capacity is weak (which hinders delivery of all essential public services), states must demand assistance from the centre so that they can deliver.
This is a great opportunity to repair the country’s public distribution system and reduce the costs of the food bill. The legal obligation to ensure food security will be a strong motivation for every state to find new methods to improve their own systems. The use of technology offers much hope, especially in reducing corruption and leakages, targeting beneficiaries, and tracking results. Mobile phones and the internet are becoming more ubiquitous in India. This coupled with the introduction of schemes such as Aadhaar will improve the efficiency in the public delivery systems.
Fourth, the right to food facilitates the achievement of other critical human rights, including education, livelihood, and health. Hungry and malnourished children cannot excel in school, and this bill will complement the existing mid-day meal schemes. Similarly, a hungry workforce cannot be productive. Also, under the food security bill, pregnant and lactating mothers are entitled to an allowance of 6,000 rupees (about 100 USD). Thus, maternal and child health in India too are likely to improve as a result.
Critics argue that the food bill alone will not improve health unless we are able to fill the gaps in access to clean drinking water and sanitation facilities. This is true. However, the food bill is not a stand-alone policy. For example, the drinking water and sanitation ministry started the Nirmal Bharat Abhiyan (NBA) to make the country free of open defecation by 2022. The health ministry recently introduced a new Reproductive, Maternal, Newborn, Child, and Adolescent Health (RMNCH+A) strategy to accelerate progress in women’s and children’s health. Viewed from this lens, it should be evident that food security must be considered not in isolation, but in a framework where essential human rights are inter-locked with each other.
Fifth, the fiscal burden issue is being misrepresented. There is no doubt that the food security bill will result in additional expenditure for the government, but this cannot be justification enough for rejecting the bill.
So, let us think carefully before we dismiss the food security bill as an empty promise. We have a better chance of reaching the finish line with the food security bill in place than without. Food security will only be realized gradually, and we must be patient even whilst keeping the political establishment true to its commitment.