Food Security Bill: Is it well thought out?

The efforts of the government to tackle growing hunger with food support schemes like the Public Distribution System (PDS), the Integrated Child Development Scheme (ICDS) and the mid-day meal scheme for schoolchildren has a mixed record. The most recent in this line of efforts to improve the hunger situation is the National Food Security Bill (NFSB).

There is also a Food Security Bill drafted by the Sonia Gandhi-headed National Advisory Council (NAC), which, given its provenance, is being considered by the government, but reactions to its contents have been mixed. An expert committee headed by C. Rangarajan stated that the entitlements in the NAC draft (90 per cent coverage of the rural population and 50 per cent of the urban) were not feasible due to unavailability of sufficient foodgrains. They recommended that the entitlements guaranteed for above poverty line households be discarded and that only below poverty line households (as measured by the Tendulkar estimate plus a 10 per cent margin) be included in the scheme.
This would mean coverage of only 46 per cent of the rural population and 28 per cent of the urban. Union agriculture minister Sharad Pawar has expressed doubts about the large quantity of grain procurement that would be required by the NAC draft and said that the issues raised by the Rangarajan Committee are “pertinent”. Civil society groups, too, are divided on the NAC Bill, with some terming it merely a revised form of the PDS.
There are serious shortcomings in the NAC draft. Primary is its extremely restricted scope. This is not a bill that attempts to bring about food security, it is only a bill that offers a different option to the existing PDS system for distributing grains. No attention is paid to the most important components of food security: the production of food, its distribution and its absorption by the poor and hungry. Of the three major pillars of food security, food production, food distribution and food absorption, the NAC draft addresses just one. It is actually more a welfare bill, a “dole”, than an effort to engage with the complex problem of food security.
Tackling food security will mean treading on influential toes. The conflicts will arise over who will have preferential access to productive resources like land and water. Will Coca-Cola get the water for its bottling plant or will farmers get it for their cultivation? Will small farmers in the dry lands get the investments they need to create water bodies to enable them to have a second crop in the winter? The conflicts will be over issues such as fertiliser subsidies. Will Punjab, Haryana, western Uttar Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu continue to be the principal beneficiaries of the government’s subsidies? Or will nutrient-based subsidy be directed at poor quality soils in rainfed areas that mostly need intervention, finally giving these farmers their due? The smallest, most marginal farmers have the worst soils and the least access to water. A Food Security Bill will have meaning only if it tries to swing things in their favour.
The Food Security Bill must tackle the fundamental question of common resources and the right of access to them. It must be able to speak out against Jatropha plantations on common lands conveniently designated as “wasteland”. The biofuel produced in the name of clean energy will take away the grazing lands of herders and pastoralists and the place where they can park their livestock because they have no other land. It will take away the source of leafy green vegetables and medicinal plants that the poor rely on.
Just as it will have to tackle the soft-drinks multinationals, the Food Security Bill must also take a position against the conglomerates grabbing agricultural lands in the name of special economic zones to set up industrial estates (or just to corner real estate). India’s most productive lands, the two-crop and three-crop zones, are being snapped up to build urban estates. Where will we grow our food?
The food production part of the Food Security Bill will also have to deal with putting into place our strategy to ensure food security when faced with climate change. According to the report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the impact of climate change will be most severe in Africa and South Asia, especially in its rainfed areas. How do we propose to cope with global warming and still grow sufficient food?
And how can we have food security when the drinking water is dirty and contaminated with pathogens, sanitation facilities do not exist and diarrhoea leaches the body of all nutrients? Children continue to die of diarrhoea and adults continue to sicken with it, unable to retain the little nutrition they get.
To draft a comprehensive Food Security Bill and accommodate the aspects that logically belong there, a lot of people will have to be asked to give up some of what is in their bag of goodies. The bill clearly fights shy of that. But, as if to demonstrate its serious intent, the NAC draft has tacked on several pages of penalties for violations to the substantive text, making this not an enabling bill, but a punishing bill.
Questions have also been raised about the manner of drafting this bill. What kinds of consultations were undertaken? How did the principal stakeholders engage in the process of providing inputs? In what manner were experts and other actors brought on board? How were the public’s views sought? How has this bill attempted to be pluralistic and representative of multiple views?
A greater understanding of food security than is evidenced by the current NAC draft is required to put the right components into such a sensitive law. Otherwise there is the risk of missing key targets and landing up with a law that is meaningless. A comprehensive approach to food security must comprise all relevant aspects, such as the production (availability) of food, its distribution, and the ability of the poor to absorb and benefit from the food and nutrition that they can access. If we are serious and mean to do the right thing, we must start afresh and draft a new food security legislation.

The writer is a genetic scientist who has served on the faculty
of the Universities of Chicago and Heidelberg, is convenor of the Gene Campaign

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