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Cutting the Food Act to the bone

The first salvo against the food security Act was fired in July last year with the illegal extension accorded to the State governments to implement the Act.
The Hindu

The first salvo against the food security Act was fired in July last year with the illegal extension accorded to the State governments to implement the Act.

When Parliament passed the National Food Security Act (NFSA) in 2013, it had already become one of the most debated pieces of legislation in decades. Those for and against it had fought it out across yards of space on the editorial pages of newspapers, not to forget the slugfests on television channels. The parliamentary standing committee studying it, while it was still a Bill, received over 2,00,000 public responses. A vast majority of those comments called, in writing, for expanding the provisions of the Bill.

The NFSA was, after all, an outcome of remarkable public and judicial action — a battle of over a decade to secure freedom from hunger for millions who had not gained from India’s emergence as a major economy. With all its inadequacies, the Act is still seen by many as a final assault on the unconscionable hunger that has stalked the countryside and urban slums. Over two-thirds, or more than 820 million Indians, came under its ambit.

Political reversal

In the debates in Parliament, those who vociferously argued for the expansion of the provisions, pitching in for universalisation and an increase in the quantum of the entitlements, included stalwarts from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) like Sushma Swaraj, Arun Jaitley, Murli Manohar Joshi and Prakash Javadekar. The then Chief Minister of Gujarat, Narendra Modi, wrote to the Prime Minister, asking for the law to be further strengthened. It was not unsurprising because the BJP-ruled States, led by Chhattisgarh, had considerably enhanced the outreach of the Public Distribution Systems (PDS) in their respective States and were credited with having put in place robust systems of transparency and accountability in public food schemes. Therefore, the BJP was determined not to let the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government and the Congress Party walk away with all the credit for this landmark legislation.

That was then. And two years is an interminably long wait in politics. Now, the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government seems equally determined to throttle the NFSA by bleeding it with a thousand cuts, both fiscal and otherwise, even before it is fully implemented. In the last one year, the mandarins at the Food Ministry have not allowed a single provision of the NFSA to remain unmolested.

The first salvo against the Act was fired in July last year with the illegal extension accorded to the State governments to implement the Act. Illegal, because the NFSA itself specifies that the implementation would commence within a year of the legislation being enacted. Therefore, any change in the roll-out should have been first approved by Parliament. Subsequently, the Ministry has extended the date of the implementation twice. All this ostensibly because States have not been able to identify those who should be covered under the provisions of the Act. Yet, the final lists from the the Socio Economic And Caste Census (2011), which most States will use for the identification have not yet been made public. This survey, which was conducted by the Central government, was delayed by six years despite Supreme Court orders that the exercise should be completed by the beginning of the Eleventh Five Year Plan.

Subsequently, in July last year, the Food Ministry arm-twisted State governments not to declare a “bonus” for farmers over and above the Minimum Support Price that is provided by the Central government. This despite the fact that it was paid from the coffers of State governments. Ironically, it was a move that hurt farmers in the BJP-ruled States of Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan the most. The procurement of food grains from farmers was severely restricted as a result of this decision, one that we will rue if there is a monsoon deficit, as predicted this year.

Budget cuts

The Union Budget for the current fiscal dealt the next decisive blow with punishing cuts to some of the key programmes under the Act. The Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) had a 50 per cent cut, prompting the Union Minister for Women and Child Development, Maneka Gandhi, warning the Finance Minister that the “political fallout of such a situation can be grave”. Similarly, the Mid Day Meal Scheme (MDMS) saw its budget reduced from Rs.13,000 crore to Rs.9,000 crore for a flagship programme universalised by Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s government. Other social sector schemes which have a direct bearing on nutrition have seen similar and vicious cutbacks. The weak argument that States can compensate the deficit with the additional 10 per cent of revenues that they will have now from the share of taxes does not bear the scrutiny of numbers or logic. The majority of the programmes that bear the brunt of the austerity, like the MDMS, are Centrally sponsored schemes.

To tackle India’s shameful track record in maternal deaths and women’s nutrition, the NFSA introduced the maternity entitlement scheme. Every pregnant and nursing mother was to receive Rs.6,000 as a one-time cash transfer. Two years down the line there are still no signs of the scheme taking off.

But credit must be given where it is due. And the one for driving the last nail into the coffin of the NFSA, if it was required at all, must go to the Food Ministry and the latest round of revisions made by it to the Public Distribution System (Control) Order. This order was notified by the Department of Food and Public Distribution on March 20. There are three elements in this order that are in total contempt of Supreme Court orders and the provisions of the NFSA which stand out.

Phase out and freeze

First, the Antyodaya Anna Yojana (AAY) is being sought to be phased out, with States being instructed not to add any new household to this category if any household drops out of the programme due to an improvement in social or economic status, death, etc.; the number of households would be reduced to that extent. This means that over time, the programme would be phased out. AAY provides 35 kilogrammes of food grains per month (irrespective of the number of members in the household) to 20 million of the most vulnerable families in the country, and which is currently accessed by the most vulnerable tribal communities, persons with disability and the aged. Launched on Mr. Vajpayee’s birthday 15 years ago, when the NDA was in power, it was a scheme that he took personal interest in and nurtured through his tenure. The effectiveness of this programme led even the UPA to expand it twice. There couldn’t have been a surer way to disrespect Mr. Vajpayee’s legacy programme than to wind it down.

Second, in complete contravention of Supreme Court orders and the NFSA (Section 9), the PDS (Control) Order freezes the number of people who can access the entitlements, to the decadal Census figures rather than expand it each year based on the population estimates of the Registrar General and Census Commissioner of India. What this means is that State governments cannot add to the number of beneficiaries to accommodate the increase in population in the 10-year period between the publication of the final Census results.

Establishing citizenship

Most damningly, for the first time, the PDS (Control) Order explicitly places an additional burden of citizenship, besides being a resident of the State, for someone to access benefits under the NFSA. Ostensibly, this is to check foreigners, (especially the large number of Canadians who are perhaps queuing up at our ration shops!) to get the benefits of the PDS. In practical terms, what this means is that some of the most vulnerable migrant communities of India would find themselves excluded from the PDS. And if you thought this was an entirely theoretical proposition, try getting a ration card in Delhi if you are a Bengali migrant who also happens to sport a Muslim name. Well, try getting yourself a ration card anyway. The last PDS (Control) Order issued in 2001 did not think it necessary to make this distinction, nor did the NFSA, where the entitlements are defined for “persons” rather than citizens. Since the jurisprudence on the right to food flows from Article 21 of the Constitution, on the right to life and liberty, the right to food should be available to all persons without their having to establish their citizenship first.

The impact of these measures is already being felt across the country with the visibly weakening political will of the Central government impacting programme implementation in the field. Chhattisgarh’s PDS, arguably one of the best in the country — even the Supreme Court has repeatedly highlighted as an example that other States should emulate — is tainted by a procurement scam. Close to 7,00,000 ration cards were cancelled. While a large number of them were reinstated subsequently, the most marginalised sections of the population did not manage to find their way back into the system.

Pulses have been removed from the PDS in non-tribal districts. Despite provisions made in the State budget this year, the pioneering Phulwari crèche programme for children is not being expanded; the scheme for nutritional supplements for patients suffering from tuberculosis is languishing in files. Bureaucratic intransigence coupled with a diminishing political commitment is threatening to dismantle the State’s welfare architecture. Heartbreakingly, Chhattisgarh had two starvation deaths in quick succession last month, for the first time in years. And as the elections to the local bodies showed, Maneka Gandhi was right after all. There is a political price to pay.

The irony that the world will not miss is that the Modi government has emerged as a global champion of farmers’ rights and food security with its progressive position on the public-stockholding issue at the World Trade Organization to fix unjust trade rules. A classic case, if there was one, of do as we say and not as we do.

(Biraj Patnaik is the Principal Adviser to the Commissioners of the Supreme Court in the Right to Food case. The views expressed are personal.)


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