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August 29, 2013

Food Security Bill: A welcome but grossly inadequate step towards eradication of Hunger

[This is an AHRC statement.] 
The passing of the Food Security Bill by the Lok Sabha comes as a big relief to the impoverished masses of a country that is home to hunger. The Asian Human Rights Commission congratulates India for taking a definite, even if grossly inadequate step, towards eradication of hunger with this move and hopes it will take all measures to implement the Bill in the letter and spirit.
The Bill, ironically, has busted many a myths of the growth story that the government and corporate lobby were religiously telling to the Indian citizenry. The very need of a Food Security Bill that covers almost 67 per cent of the population exposes the hollowness of government’s claims over significant reduction in poverty. The facts speak for themselves. With such a huge population being in urgent need of the government’s help to ensure mere physical survival, the Planning Commission’s tall claims of having brought down the country’s population living below the poverty line from 37 per cent in 2004-05 to 22 per cent in 2011-12 are not only incorrect but also absurd.
The need for the Bill gives evidence for the fact that the rural distress caused by the agricultural crisis is yet not over. Quite on the contrary, the crisis has now set in urban centers as well. From farmers’ suicides to footloose migration, the tales of distress are written over the bodies of countless Indian citizens, in sharp pen. Tales of the distress can be read in the government’s own statistics that confess that India has second highest number of underweight children, out of a total of 129 countries. With almost 20 percent of the children getting wasted and a further 48 percent experiencing stunted growth, the story merely gets gloomier from here.
It was in this context that the eventual passing of the bill was a foregone conclusion despite stiff resistance from the corporate lobby. As it is, no government worth its salt can abandon almost two third of its population and no opposition can stall a move aimed at rescuing them. Yet, the Bill that has been passed falls far short of the expectations of the civil society that has been the driving force behind it. There are many problems with the current Bill.
The biggest lacuna of the Bill is that it makes food security merely a legal, and not a constitutional right and thus leaves it susceptible to tweaking from vested interests in the future. Continuing with targeted Public Distribution System remains another contentious issue with the Bill. It not only makes the needy vulnerable to errors of both unfair inclusion to unjust exclusion but also raises serious doubts over effective implementation of the act by a notoriously corrupt PDS.
Providing a strong grievance redress mechanism could have addressed the issue of corruption. The experiences of mechanisms like social audit in Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee show how important a role such mechanisms can play in plugging the leaks. Further, no right is a right till a person can go and ask for redress in case of violation. The Bill, therefore, must have had a grievance redress mechanism with the powers to make individual officers responsible for derelictions, if any, and impose penalties on them.
Further, not linking the Bill with agricultural and other such entitlements significantly reduce the efficacy of the Bill whose implementation is entwined with the issues of production, availability and distribution. This is why the implementation of the Bill would require serious and urgent policy level changes in land and labour rights, making them pro people. Ensuring food security of the impoverished majority of India is not a mean task as it would upset many private, for profit, interests deeply entrenched in the system. It would require a lot of political will and concrete action therefore, to implement the Bill in letter and spirit. We hope India would do it not merely for its citizenry but also by becoming a role model for the world by showing that eradicating hunger is possible.

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