COMMENTARY AND ANALYSIS Issue-01 July to September 2010 Index Page
Full version of the report

The promises and perils of the Food Security Bill



Extreme poverty has been a constatnt feature of India. The Food and Agriculture Organisation in its World Hunger Index 2009 listed India at a low of 66 among 88 countries. [1] The United Nations Development Programme in its 2010 Human Development Report states that about 645 million people or 55% of the population of India are poor as against much-criticised official poverty figure of 27.2%. [2]

In 1965, India introduced universal Public Distribution System (PDS) with the aim of (a) maintaining stability in the prices of essential commodities across regions; (b) ensuring food entitlements to all sections at reasonable and affordable prices; and (c) keeping a check on private trade, hoarding and black-marketing. [3] In 1997, the PDS was converted into Targeted PDS (TPDS) through classification of its population into Above Poverty Line (APL) and Below Poverty Line (BPL) categories. Only those households classified as BPL were made eligible for subsidised purchase of commodities from ration shops. [4]

As the longest continuing Writ Petition (No. 196/2001 filed by Peoples Union for Civil Liberties) regarding effective implementation of Central & Centrally Sponsored Schemes to prevent starvation deaths and malnutrition in calamity affected rural areas show, the TPDS has been an utter failure.

In its election manifesto during the general elections in 2009, the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) promised to enact a food security law that guarantees access to sufficient food for all people, particularly the most vulnerable sections of the society. The UPA government constituted an Empowered Group of Ministers (EGoM) headed by Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee to bring out a framework of Food Law in July 2009. The EGoM drafted the National Food Security Bill, 2010 which promises every BPL family in rural as well as urban areas to be entitled by law to 25 kg of rice or wheat a month at Rs 3 a kg. [5]

In a country where millions of people go hungry each day while foodgrains rot in go-downs of the Food Corporation of India, the entitlement of every hungry family living below the poverty line a fixed monthly quota of foodgrain at subsidised rates is an important step. However, the National Food Security Bill, 2010 fails to address three critical flaws that plagued the PDS: (1) acceptable criteria for identification of the beneficiaries; (2) flaws of the existing procurement, storage and disbursement of food grains under the PDS system; and (3) the need for accountability mechanisms for rampant corruption and pilferage.

Criticism of the Draft Food Security Bill

Essentially, the National Food Security Bill, 2010 fails to take rights approach and address inherent flaws with the existing mechanisms on the right to food.

i. Starvation line or poverty line?

The National Food Security Bill, 2010 states that “Every identified BPL (Below Poverty Line) family within the number fixed under section 4(2) of the Bill will be entitled to receive every month from the Government 25 kg foodgrains such as rice and/or wheat at subsidized issue prices fixed from time to time in a manner as may be provided under the Rules.”

Under the TPDS, only those households classified as BPL were made eligible for subsidised commodities from ration shops. The BPL families are identified based on a combination of 13 socio-economic parameters i.e. size of operational landholding, type of house, availability of cloths, food security, sanitation, ownership of consumer durables, literacy status, status of household labour force, means of livelihood, status of children (going to school), type of indebtedness, reason for migration from household and preference for assistance.

However, since the actual classification of the population into BPL and APL was arbitrary and faulty, it resulted into exclusion of those who desperately needed food subsidies. [6] According to a survey of the National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO) in 2004-05, less than 30 per cent of the Indian rural population was classified as BPL and thus eligible for the TPDS. The remaining 70 per cent of the rural population were classified as ‘de facto APL’ and hence not covered under the TPDS. Among all rural households falling below poverty, about 50 percent did not have a BPL card. In poorer States such as Bihar and Rajasthan, fewer than 20 per cent of households had BPL cards. [7] Obviously, millions of BPL families were denied food subsidies.

The findings of National Family Health Survey also revealed similar data. [8]  The High Level Committee on Long Term Grain Policy in its report in 2002 revealed that the narrow targeting of the PDS based on absolute income-poverty excluded a large part of the nutritionally vulnerable population from the PDS. [9]

There are disputes about the number of BPL families.

As per government norms, any person who spends Rs.12 per day on an average in rural India and Rs.18 in urban India based on 2004-05 prices is considered to be Above Poverty Line and therefore cannot avail the super subsidised grains. [10] The Expert Group to Review Methodology for Estimation of Poverty headed by Suresh Tendulkar (hereinafter referred as Tendulkar Committee) in its report to the Planning Commission in November 2009 suggested that any person who has a per capita per day expenditure of just Rs 16 in rural India and Rs 20 in urban areas will be considered above poverty line. [11]

The Planning Commission estimates that only 27.2 per cent are poor. Yet another estimate from state governments puts the figure at 10.52 crore families or 45 per cent of all Indians. The government of India currently follows that estimate of the Planning Commission, which happens to be the lowest of the estimates. [12]  According to current definitions of poverty, an estimated 6.5 crore families are below the poverty line. Among them are 2.5 crore Antyodaya families, considered the poorest among the poor and therefore
eligible for additional subsidies. [13] However, according to the Suresh Tendulkar Committee, 37.2 per cent of Indians qualify as poor. [14]

The Supreme Court appointed commissioners on the right to food in their report to the court pointed out that the poverty line was in real terms just the starvation line. [15]

The Food Security Bill fails to lay down the criteria to identify the poor. It continues with the current flaws both with regard to those holding BPL cards as well as prohibiting the State governments for identifying on their own criteria or providing subsidised food to above poverty line families.

ii. Decreased food security

The National Food Security Bill, 2010 states that “Every identified BPL family within the number fixed under section 4(2) of the Bill will be entitled to receive every month from the Government 25 kg foodgrains such as rice and/or wheat at subsidized issue prices fixed from time to time in a manner as may be provided under the Rules.”

The single entitlement proposed in the draft Bill of providing only 25 kgs per household is less than the current entitlement. At present, under the Antodaya Anna Yojana, the Government provides 35 kg of food grains - wheat at Rs 2 per kg, which is lower than the price envisaged in the new Food Security Bill, and rice at Rs 3 per kg to the poorest families within the BPL category.  These families will have to pay more and get less.

In addition, all families in the BPL category are entitled to 35 kg of grains a month at Rs 5.65 per kg for rice and Rs 4.15 a kg of wheat. Under the draft Bill these families will get only 25 kg a month and the balance will have to be bought from the open market, virtually neutralising the benefit of getting grains at Rs 3 a kg. 

iii. No nutritional security

The National Food Security Bill, 2010 states that the definition of the food security should be limited to the specific issue of food grains security (wheat and rice) and be delinked from the larger issue of nutritional security. [16]

This is contrary to the 1996 Rome Declaration on World Food Security signed by India. The Declaration reaffirmed “the right of everyone to have (physical and economic) access to safe and nutritious food, consistent with the right to adequate food and the fundamental right of everyone to be free from hunger.” [17] Further Article 47 of the Constitution of India instructed the State to raise “the level of nutrition and the standard of living of its people …”

The Bill also contradicts the orders of the Supreme Court which provide for multiple entitlements on the right to food of all ages of people and all sections of society including vulnerable groups. The multiple entitlements guaranteed by the Supreme Court, apart from  35 kgs of food grains per household, includes other entitlements such as reduced prices for the PDS grain under Antyodaya Anna Yojana for vulnerable sections of society, supplementary nutrition for infants and young children under Integrated Child Development Scheme, maternity entitlements under National Maternity Benefit Scheme and Janini Suraksha Yojana, school mid-day meals, old age pensions and addressing needs of the homeless and urban poor, street children, single women and infants under six months. [18]

Obviously, the government of India is oblivious to the fact that child malnutrition rate in India at 46% is amongst the highest in the world. It is worse than child malnutrition in sub-Saharan Africa. [19]

iv. No role of state governments in decision making

Under the National Food Security Bill, the State governments do not have the right to identify the beneficiaries, extension of rights or making efforts at giving better security. This essentially leads to exclusion, dichotomy and denial.

The state government of Madhya Pradesh had identified 6.6 million poor families but as per the estimates of the Central government there were only 4.12 million families as poor in the state. [20]

The state government of Chhattisgarh also claims that it is required to spend Rs 1,800 crores per year just to provide food grains to the beneficiaries who are identified as BPL families. [21]

v. No special authority

There is also no provision for constitution of special authority/tribunal/commission or special courts to look into violations of rights and entitlements under the proposed Bill. This means that in case of violation of rights, the victims would have to approach existing judiciary which cannot be afforded by the poor and marginalized. [22]

vi. Policy of cash transfers

Section 9 of the Food Security Bill provides that the concerned State Governments “shall make payment of food security allowance to the identified BPL families as provided under section 7(8) in such manner as may be prescribed in the Rules”.

This is despite the fact that cash can never take place of food grains. Moreover, the value of cash given will deplete fast before the government revises rates in the context of ever increasing rise in food prices. Further, there is high possibility that cash given will be spent on drinking, gambling or other useless consumption without addressing food security. Cash transfers will have negative effect on the production of grains. [23]

NAC fails on basic maths

The National Advisory Council (NAC) to the government of India which has specific mandate to “provide inputs for formulation of policy by the government and to provide support to the government in its legislative business” intervened on the National Food Security Bill. Unfortunately, the inputs have not been specific and failed to address the critical issues.  

On 14 July 2010, the NAC finalised the following recommendations based on the concerns of the right to food activists on the draft Food Security Bill:
“1. While time-bound universalisation of foodgrain entitlements across the country may be desirable, initial universalisation in one-fourth of the most disadvantaged districts or blocks in the first year is recommended, where every household is entitled to receive 35kgs per month of foodgrains at Rs 3 a kg;
2. In the remaining districts/blocks, coverage of universal PDS with differentiated entitlements (in terms of quantity and issue price), would progressively be expanded to all rural areas in the country over a reasonable period of time. There shall be a guarantee of 35 kgs of foodgrains per household at Rs 3 a kg for all socially vulnerable groups including SC/STs, and 25 kgs for all others, at an appropriate price. There would also be a category that would be excluded based on transparent and verifiable criteria. Further details of this basic framework will be formulated by the NAC;
3. In urban areas, eligible households (identified by criteria developed by the Planning Commission based on the recommendations of the Hashim Committee), including slum-dwellers and the homeless, will be entitled to 35 kg per month at Rs 3 a kg;
4. Existing allocations for APL in the remaining districts/blocks should not be reduced;
5. Comprehensive nutrition support schemes for infants, pre-school children, school children, welfare hostel students, adolescent girls, pregnant women, street-children, homeless, the aged and infirm, differently-abled, those living with leprosy, TB and HIV/AIDS etc., together with community kitchens and destitute feeding will be initiated throughout the entire country; and
6. The NAC has decided that the Working Group on Food Security will undertake further work on measures for enhancing agriculture production, PDS and procurement reforms, ICDS reforms and maternity benefits, community kitchens and destitute feeding. It would look at systems of oversight, transparency, accountability and grievance reddressal.” [24]

As expected, these recommendations of the NAC were thrashed.

First, NAC promoted discrimination based on place of residence. It suggestion, “…initial universalisation in one-fourth of the most disadvantaged districts or blocks in the first year is recommended, where every household is entitled to receive 35 kg per month of foodgrains at Rs. 3 a kg”, implies that around 150 districts out of 640 will be covered. If one is poor but does not reside in one of the 150 backward districts, s/he is not entitled to the benefits. Further, the identification of districts will be contentious. 

Second, there is no reference as to whether the ‘initial universalisation’ will be extended to the remaining districts. The NAC recommended, “In the remaining districts/blocks…..there shall be a guarantee of 35 kg of foodgrains per household at Rs. 3 a kg for all socially vulnerable groups including SC/STs…” While there is no doubt that socially vulnerable groups disproportionately suffer from poverty, poverty cuts across caste or religion. Further, there is no mention of inclusion of the minorities and the most backward castes apart from the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes.

Third, the NAC proposal stated that for all others (other than the category of socially vulnerable groups) the guarantee will be 25 kg “at an appropriate price.” It implies that the same poor coming from “not socially vulnerable communities will have to pay more than those from socially vulnerable groups.

Fourth, the NAC had not suggested any time-frame for implementation except for the 150 districts. The NAC stated that “differentiated entitlements… would progressively be expanded to all rural areas in the country over a reasonable period of time” without specifying differentiated entitlements.

Fifth, with regard to the urban poor, it was suggested that households eligible for 35 kg at Rs. 3 are to be identified on the basis of criteria developed by the Hashim Committee. However, the report of the Hashim Committee was not submitted at the time of submission of the NAC recommendations. How could one accept the recommendations even before reading the report?

Finally, there is no reference to the poor belonging to the Antyodaya category, the poorest of the poor. Elimination of this category would mean 2.5 crore families being deprived of their existing entitlement of wheat at Rs. 2 a kg and having to pay Re. 1 more.

As we go to the print, the NAC made further recommendations on 20 October 2010 to address the above concerns.

The NAC recommended that “legal entitlements to subsidised foodgrains should be extended to at least 75% of the country’s population - 90% in rural areas and 50% inurban areas”. However, a mere summation of country’s population i.e. 90% in rural areas and 50% inurban areas shows that only 70% of the population, and not 75% as stated by NAC, are covered.

In its 20 October 2010 recommendations, the NAC further divided priority households (46% in rural areas and 28% in urban areas) and the general households (44% in rural areas and in urban areas) as target groups without specifying as to how the households are to be identified.

Finally, the NAC shied away from making any recommendation to “specify the criteria for categorization of population into priority and general households”.

Recommendations

In August 2010 the Central government admitted that food grains were rotting due to record procurement in the last three years without matching storage facility. In its order, a Supreme Court Bench comprising Justices Dalveer Bhandari and Deepak Verma said: [25]

“If this is the position, then increase the storage facility by constructing godowns in every district. But not a single grain of food should be wasted. If due to lack of storage facility food grains are rotting and getting wasted, then distribute it free to those hungry. The government could also increase the allocation to families covered underBPLand AAY schemes.”

On 18 October 2010, the Supreme Court further expressed its displeasure after it discovered that 67,539 tonnes of food grains rotted in godowns in Punjab and Haryana during 2009-10 and not just 7,000 tonnes as claimed by the Centre during the hearing of the petition filed by the PUCL. Additional Solicitor General Mohan Parasaran had told the Supreme Court that that only 7,000 tonnes of food grains were rotten in FCI godowns in Punjab and Haryana. [26]

The PUCL further informed the court that the government has 55 million tonnes available in stocks. Of the remaining 22 million tonnes buffer stock, the government has an additional 33 million tonnes of food grains. Despite this, the Centre was allocating only a meagre 2.5 million tonnes for BPL families through PDS. [27]

At the heart of the crisis is not the cost or lack of sufficient foodgrains in India but the lack of mechanisms for identification of poor, lack of effective mechanisms for procurement of food grains, lack of safe storage, lack of mechanisms of distribution under the PDS and lack of accountability of those responsible for distribution of food under the Public Distribution System. Unless the Food Security Bill, 2010 address these critical issues, it would be seen as another attempt for vote bank politics or an attempt to circumvent the world’s longest continuing mandamus.

The National Food Security Bill provides an opportunity the address the most basic human rights,  the right to food in short term and all the three aspects of availability, access and nutritional outcomes, in the longer term.

The Asian Centre for Human Rights recommends that the Food Security Bill, 2010 includes the following element:

The principles of equality and non-discrimination shall be upheld while recognizing special provision for the socially vulnerable groups like SC/STs/minorities;

The guidelines/criteria for identification of entitlement holders (BPL/Antodaya) be developed and mechanisms to claim the entitlements for those excluded be provided;

Implement the Supreme Court order for identification of the beneficiaries based on the criteria developed by each State government;

Develop mechanism for auditing, monitoring and establishing accountability of the officials responsible for implementation of the Right to National Food Security; and
Implement the Supreme Court direction to the Centre for total computerisation of the PDS food grain supply mechanism to weed out rampant corruption and pilferage, as reported to the apex court by the Justice Wadhwa Commission. [28]

Endnotes:
1. For inclusive approach to food security, The Hindu, 30 June 2009
2. 55% of India’s population poor: Report, The Times of India, 15 July 2010
3. Food insecurities, The Frontline, Volume 27 - Issue 15 :: Jul. 17-30, 2010
4. Ibid
5. Empowered Group of Ministers clears draft Food Security Bill, The Hindustan Times, 18 March 2010
6. Food insecurities, The Frontline, Volume 27 - Issue 15 :: Jul. 17-30, 2010
7. Ibid
8. The task of making the PDS work, The Hindu, 8 July 2010
9. Food insecurities, The Frontline, Volume 27 - Issue 15 :: Jul. 17-30, 2010
10. APL need to get subsidized food too? The Times of India, 2 September 2010
11. Report of the Expert Group to Review Methodology for Estimation of Poverty, November 2009, Planning Commission of India
12. Govt to send food security bill back to rewrite desk, The Hindustan Times, 3 April 2010
13. For inclusive approach to food security, The Hindu, 30 June 2010
14. Report of the Expert Group to Review Methodology for Estimation of Poverty, November 2009, Planning Commission of India
15. APL need to get subsidized food too? The Times of India, 2 September 2010
16. Food Security Act should cover entire population, The Central Chronicle, 7 April 2010
17. Ensuring food security for all, The Economic Times, 31 May 2010
18. Ibid
19. India has very high child malnutrition rates: study, The Financial Express, 18 October 2006
20. Food Security Act should cover entire population, The Central Chronicle, 7 April 2010
21. Ibid
22. Ibid
23. Right to Food Campaign, available at: http://www.righttofoodindia.org/data/food_security_what_the_government_says_and_what_we_want.pdf
24. Press Release dated 14 July 2010 of National Advisory Council, available at: http://nac.nic.in/press_releases/14_july_2010.pdf
25. Why let foodgrain rot? Give it for free to hungry: SC, The Times of India, 13 August 2010
26. Grain rot deeper than govt claim: SC, The Hindustan Times, 19 October 2010
27. Ibid
28. Why let foodgrain rot? Give it for free to hungry: SC, The Times of India, 13 August 2010
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