What the food bill does not consider
The National Food Security Bill, passed by both the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha, marks an important chapter in our struggle to end hunger through appropriate social protection. It is the world’s largest programme for achieving the goal of zero hunger. Food security has several dimensions such as:
a) availability of food in the market, which is a function of production,
b) access to food which is a function of purchasing power and
c) absorption of food in the body which is a function of the availability of clean drinking water, sanitation, toilets, primary healthcare and nutritional literacy.
There are also three types of hunger, viz.
a) under-nutrition resulting from calorie deprivation
b) protein-hunger arising from inadequate consumption of protein-rich foods like pulses, milk, egg etc. and
c) hidden-hunger caused by the deficiency of micronutrients in the diet, such as iron, iodine, zinc, Vitamin A and Vitamin B12.
The present Food Security Bill addresses only the issue of inadequate consumption arising from lack of purchasing power.
Under-nutrition in a cereal-based diet is a major cause of malnutrition. Therefore, to some extent, meeting the calorie needs through cereals can make a contribution to ending the other forms of hunger. The Chhattisgarh Food Security Act 2012 addresses all the three aspects of hunger by providing for the distribution of pulses and iodised salt. The Food Security
Bill also aims to work towards nutrition security on a life cycle basis. Therefore, we can hope that in the coming years, the Food Security Bill will be strengthened in order to address holistically
the problem of food and nutrition insecurity.
Among the highlights of the bill, I would like to draw attention to the following.
First, the bill recognises the critical role of women in household food security by empowering the eldest woman in the household to receive the ration card or other forms of entitlements card. This is a very important step since women are likely to ensure that the food goes to ending hunger among children, men and the other members of the household.
Second, the bill also recognises the need for a life-cycle approach starting with conception and extending up to cremation. The first 1,000 days of a child’s life has been specially mentioned for social protection, since it is during this period that brain development of the child takes place at a fast pace. Under- and malnutrition among pregnant women leads to the birth of babies with a weight of less than 2.5 kg. Such low birth weight babies face several handicaps in later life, including impaired cognitive ability.
A third feature of the bill is
the enlargement of the food basket in order to include millets and other nutri-cereals in the food
entitlement, in addition to wheat and rice. Millets and other
under-utilised crops are not
only nutritious, but are more resilient with reference to climate change.
The year 2013, which marks the 70th anniversary of the Bengal Famine, is also the year when we see the transition from a ship-to-mouth existence to right to
food with homegrown food. Availability of food as a basic human right is an important step in realising the goal of Mahatma Gandhi, who said at Noakhali, Bangladesh, in 1946: “God is bread to those who are hungry”.
There are, however, two important areas where we should be careful. First, there is provision for providing cash instead of foodgrains when needed. As a rule, substituting cash for foodgrains should be avoided for two reasons. One, the cash will have to go to the woman in the household who holds the entitlements card. This is likely to create problems within the family, including increased domestic violence, in view of the widespread tendency among men to take to alcoholism.
Second, giving cash rather than grain will decrease interest in
procurement and safe storage.
If procurement at a remunerative support price goes down, production will also go down. We cannot sustain the right to food
with imported grains, since the international market is very volatile.
The right to information can be enforced with the help of files,
but the right to food can be implemented over a period of time only with the help of farmers and farming. The Food Security Bill, unfortunately, ignores this vital difference with reference to fulfilling legal rights and pays very little attention to the pivotal role of farmwomen and men in ensuring that the right to food becomes an implementable right.
The writer is the chairman of the National Commission on Farmers. He is considered to be the father of India’s green revolution.