Towards a People’s Charter on Food Security: a Note
In a season of recession, all-time high food prices, retrenchment and wage cuts, decline in food production and drought that is affecting large swathes of the country, the UPA Government has announced its promise of a National Food Security Act, with the agenda of “assuring food security for all” and also ensuring “broader systemic reform in the Public Distribution System.” The Prime Minister, too, has announced that “not a single Indian will be allowed to go hungry.” No Government has any moral right to rule if even a single citizen goes hungry; in India, ironically, boasts of “high growth” have only led to more hunger, with India enjoying the dubious distinction of being home to an estimated one quarter of the world’s hungry people.
Does the Government’s conception of food security legislation match up to the promise of eliminating hunger?
A look at the ‘Proposed National Food Security Act – a Concept Note’ circulated by the Ministry of Food and Public Distribution among State Governments reveals a very different picture of ‘food security’ as envisioned by the UPA Government.
The central concern that emanates from the Concept Note is not how to end malnutrition and hunger, but how to restrict the number of BPL families in order to make the projected BPL numbers ‘fit’ the amount the Government is willing to spend under this head!
Claims of reduced poverty
The Note premises itself on the claim of poverty having reduced, to argue for coverage for fewer BPL families under the proposed law. The current BPL number, based on poverty estimates of the Planning Commission of 1993-1994, is 6.52 crore. The Planning Commission poverty estimates of 2004-05 works out to 5.91 crore.
These estimates are arrived at by calculating the per capita monthly expenses required to buy food to meet a minimum nutritional norm of 2400 calories per capita per day for rural areas and 2100 per capita per day for urban areas. In 2007 this was fixed at Rs 368 for rural areas and Rs 560 for urban areas – around Rs 12 and Rs 18 every day in rural and urban areas respectively. These criteria have been challenged by many as being highly inaccurate, leaving the mass of the poor out of the net of support or relief.
Recall that the Arjun Sengupta Commission Report says 77 per cent of Indians live on less than Rs 20 a day. Surely at least this 77% of Indian population ought to be acknowledged as poor? Even the rural development ministry’s expert committee on BPL surveys, chaired by Supreme Court-appointed food commissioner N C Saxena, has recommended that 50% of India’s population be given BPL cards. But the UPA Government continues to look the other way and stonewall on the question of revising its methods of calculating poverty.
Drastic cut in proposed number of BPL cards
While the national BPL estimate stands at 6.52 crore, the actual number of BPL cards issued by States and UTs is 10.68 crore – in the words of the Note, this is ‘in excess by’ 4.16 crore. What the Government is actually proposing is drastically reduce and restrict this number to 5.91 crore.
Enforced Cutbacks even in State Govt. Food Schemes
The Note proposes that the Central Government alone will have the prerogative to centrally fix the numbers of BPL households as well as the scale of issue, based on Planning Commission estimates. There is great stress on the insistence that the States should firmly adhere to this restriction and be penalised in case of non-compliance. However, the Note leaves the question open as to whether States should be allowed to fix lower rates of food grains, at their own cost.
Yearly Revision and Updating BPL List
Here again, the thrust is not on identifying new entrants or correcting anomalies by inclusion of those who might have been missed out, but to identify households for eviction from the list. Criticising the notion of ‘once a BPL always a BPL’, the note holds that it is “reasonable” to expect that some section of BPL population will “cross the poverty line every year.” It proposes a “legally binding” and mandatory annual review of the list by State Governments – whereby State governments will be pressurised to evict some households from the list every year.
Withdrawal of PDS support to the ‘APL’
The Government is not only planning on reducing numbers of BPL families, but on excluding the APL category from the ambit of the law. With food prices soaring, can one really believe that those earning Rs. 12 a day in rural areas and Rs. 18 a day in urban areas is not hard-pressed to provide food (let alone fuel, clothing, health, shelter, education) for the family?
Winding up of other schemes
The Note proposes that once the new law is in place, other schemes for especially vulnerable groups – such as Antyodaya or Annapurna – will no longer be needed and can be dumped, in the name of “avoiding multiplicity of schemes.” So the sections currently availing of these schemes will face immediate hardship as their entitlements will be reduced.
Cuts in food grain entitlement per family
The law proposes to reduce the entitlement of grain per family from the existing 35 kg to 25 kg.
In brief, the Government’s conception of the Food Security Law actually amounts to an arbitrary and artificial restriction of the numbers of the poor, and ironically, the support net for the poor will actually be restricted rather than expanded.
Prior to its proposal of a Food Security law, the UPA Government had already begun floating ‘pilot projects’ replacing grain entitlements with cash. This would deal to a grievous blow to food security, since in times of indebtedness cash is likely to flow towards paying off pressing debts rather than being used to buy food. Also, such a scheme is likely to further reduce women’s access to and control over food.
Against this travesty of the concept of food security, we demand –
A Food Security Act that must:
1) Ensure 50 kgs of grain at the rate of Rs. 2 per kg, as well as pulses and oil, shall be provided to all poor families
2) Put an end to imposition of BPL ceiling from above; BPL lists to be finalised through panchayats in a transparent and accountable manner, subject to public scrutiny and social audit. Adopt a simpler method of calculating poverty, ensuring the automatic inclusion of various vulnerable sections identified on the basis of backward region/district, weaker community and insecure and ill-paid occupation. Certain transparent criteria for wealth can be identified, and those households displaying those criteria can be automatically excluded. In poor rural districts, all households must be brought within the ambit of the law, barring those automatically excluded on the wealth criterion. All landless labourers, agricultural workers, and urban workers in the unorganised sector must be automatically included in the BPL list.
3) Ensure continuation and strengthening of all the other welfare schemes – including Antyodaya for the very poor, Annapurna for the destitute, infirm and old, maternity and child care and nutrition schemes, and so on
4) Restructure the entire PDS system in a thoroughgoing way to free it from the trap of middlemen and brokers; without such restructuring the food cannot reach the beneficiaries. The Government should own the full responsibility of establishing a network of government-run Fair Price shops, which must remain open all 7 days of the week for at least 6-8 hours a day. The responsibility to ensure doorstep delivery of rations must also be the Government’s. Grain Banks must be established in every panchayat, since the gap between suffering people and the FCI godowns is too large to bridge in times of acute scarcity and drought.
5) In cases of complaints of starvation death, relief must be provided to the entire affected community without waiting to proof of ‘starvation death’ to be established. A draft Food Security Bill circulated by the Right to Food Campaign has suggested that the District Collector and district Panchayat head be responsible for ensuring immediate relief based on prima facie evidence of “conditions of vulnerability to starvation for a dispossessed community or household.” We further suggest that it must be the gram sabha which must decide if a death was due to starvation or not. There must be punitive provisions for government authorities who fail to respond to complaints of hunger.
6) In case of situations of sudden vulnerability to hunger: such as natural calamities, communal violence or displacement, free rations must be distributed among the affected population for a year.
7) Migrant workers be brought within the ambit of the Act; as suggested by the Right to Food Campaign’s Draft Act, it must be ensured that “all migrant workers within the country and their families are able to access all their entitlements under this Act, irrespective of their location.”
8) The Act must take serious note of the grave situation of malnutrition among women and high levels of maternal mortality. As suggested by the Right to Food Campaign’s Draft Act, “women must be regarded as head of the household for all food-related matters such as the distribution of ration cards.” Breastfeeding support, and take home rations for pregnant and nursing women must be included in the Act.
9) ICDS, which in spite of Supreme Court orders is yet to be universalised, must be established in all panchayats; mini-anganwadis can be provided in all rural and urban poor settlements like tolas and jhuggi bastis. Anganwadis be provided for a population o 300 people. Remunerative wages be fixed for anganwadi workers.
10) PDS-related offences be made cognizable and subject to heavy penalties.
Rejecting the government’s proposals to further shrink and restrict food security in the name of ‘food for all,’ we must intensify the campaign for genuine and comprehensive food security that can address the nearly 80% of India’s people who are poor.
Protest Week against Price-rise and Hunger
At Delhi, as part of the week-long campaign, a protest dharna was organised on 26th August jointly by CPI(ML), All India Central Council of Trade Unions (AICCTU) and AIPWA at the FSO Office in Adarshnagar, Wazirpur, against striking off names of the poor from the BPL list.