M. Kumaran, Oxfam India’s food justice program coordinator, unpacks India’s historic new Food Security Act
On 2nd September, 2013 the Indian Parliament ushered in a new legally-enforceable regime in India’s struggle against hunger through the historic National Food Security Act 2013. The Act injects more resources into India’s food and nutrition programmes and establishes an independent grievance redress system for fixing gaps in implementation. However the Act is far from being a comprehensive piece of legislation, with many policy loopholes.
According to the 2012 Global Hunger Index Report, despite high growth, hunger in India did not decline between 1996 and 2011. The hunger and malnutrition (HUNGaMA) report 2011, released by the Prime Minister, revealed that 42 per cent children in India were underweight and nearly 59 per cent were stunted. With high levels of acute malnutrition almost three children die every minute in India.
Even before the new Act, the government had introduced a wide range of food and nutrition schemes. These currently cover around 140 million children under school feeding programme, provide supplementary nutrition to 91 million pregnant/lactating women and children (0-6 yrs), cover another 10.5 million women with cash transfers for maternity benefits and assure 35 kg food grains every month at a fixed price to around 1.21 billion people (including below poverty line households who got food grains at a subsidized price).
That level of government activity has needed defending. In the last two decades, civic action by the Right to Food Campaign, along with judicial interventions have effectively blocked the efforts of a strong anti-food subsidy lobby to dismantle these programmes. Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) and Mid-day Meals (hot cooked meals) for school children were universalised, and attempts to further reduce coverage of the Public Distribution System (PDS) and replace it with cash transfers were defeated.
The new Act is a further significant victory. It uses existing social security programmes as a means to deliver legal entitlements, legally protecting the necessary resource allocation. In certain cases, the Act also expands coverage and entitlements. It increases the PDS coverage with provision of subsidised food grains at a lower cost, for an additional 260 million people. The Act also reduces the price of rice to Rs 3 (5 US cents), wheat to Rs 2 (3 US cents), and millets to Rs 1 (1.5 US cents), per kg for an additional 688 million people. Similarly the maternity benefit coverage is universalised and all women will be legally eligible for maternity benefits up to Rs. 6000 (US$96), unless they are already covered.
The Act envisions an “empowerment revolution” whereby citizens can assert their legally guaranteed food rights. Currently food and nutrition entitlements do not reach a large number of eligible beneficiaries. For instance, out of 86 tonnes of food grains that is supposed to annually reach poor people through a PDS shop, only 39 tonnes actually gets there, according to the Planning Commission. Similarly, out of 46 per cent malnourished children reported by the National Family Health Survey only 8 per cent are actually identified by the ICDS. To empower the beneficiaries, the Act makes provision for a district level Grievance Redressal Officer (DGRO) and State Food Commissions, with powers to hear complaints and take action against erring officials.
Positively discriminating in favour of women, the Act considers the eldest woman in the house as the household head for receiving the PDS entitlement cards.
Despite all this, on many others counts, the Act remains a missed opportunity. Firstly, it fails to take a comprehensive “food for all” approach. Despite well documented problems with targeting in the PDS, it has not replaced it with universal coverage by subsidized food-grains. As a result, the Act will exclude many poor and vulnerable groups, such as unorganised urban workers, out-of-school children, poor children enrolled in private schools, migrant workers, homeless and destitute people. By not including pulses and edible oils in the PDS, the Act fails to provide a good nutritional balance.
Another miss for the Act has been its failure to take the grievance redressal system beyond the district level, to the lowest governance units, the block or gram panchayat level. The system is largely toothless, without power to take punitive actions against erring officials, beyond imposing a meager fine of Rs. 5000 (US$80).
Despite the well-established role of subsidised food grains in providing protection against food price inflation and intra-household discrimination, the act encourages cash transfers.
Finally, it misses the chance to support poor producers by procuring locally grown food grains for PDS, ICDS and mid-day-meals from nearby (10-20 km distance) small and marginal farms.
Many of these limitations are a direct result of the government’s attempt to contain food subsidies. Media attention was captured by critics who orchestrated a debate on the Act’s ‘affordability’ that was misleading. These critics fail to see that the economic benefit from reduced child malnutrition in the long run will far surpass the cost of of food subsidies. Moreover careful calculation by experts shows that the food subsidy will only increase by 18 per cent due to the new Act. Even after the food bill, the subsidy levels for social protection as a proportion of GDP in India will remain very low by international standards. While the financial cost of the Act stands at an estimated Rs 1.25 trillion (US$20bn), the revenue foregone due to exemptions/ deductions/ incentives in the central tax system for big corporate houses or highly salaried professionals was Rs 5.73 trillion (US$92 billion) in 2012-13. Given these facts, it is laudable that the opposition parties and the ruling coalition have disregarded these “affordability worries” in debates on the bill and focused more on its limitations.
Now that the legislation is being rolled out, it’s time for civil society to mobilise people at the grassroots level to monitor its implementation and try and plug the policy loopholes.
Another major challenge will be to ensure that the Government’s strategy of fulfilling food rights through direct food grain delivery does not mean it is able to shirk its wider responsibility for tackling the structural drivers of India’s poverty and inequality. A broad-based mobilisation of agricultural labourers and small holders needs to ensure that the Act does not end up merely as a tool to clean up the mess generated by the current growth model, which is pursuing policies that adversely affect small and marginal farmers.