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Human rights

Legally entitled to a full stomach

by Boro Baski
A young Adivasi grazing cattle

A young Adivasi grazing cattle

Fifty percent of the world’s hungry live in India. But India is a democracy, which gives her citizens a lot of rights – for instance, the constitutional right to food. Based on this right, Indian civil society organisations won a series of court battles in the name of the poor. Now a Right to Food Bill is about to be passed. Will this be the end of malnutrition and starvation in India? By Boro Baski

Every human being has the right to food. The need to eat is the most basic need of all. Therefore the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) and numerous national constitutions include a “Right to Food” clause. India is one of the countries that implicitly include the right to food in their constitution – at least, the wording of the constitution allows this interpretation (see box next page).

Nonetheless, India is home to the world’s largest number of hungry people, with more than 200 million food-insecure people, according to the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) report of 2008. India ranks 66th of 88 nations on the Global Hunger Index which is compiled by three organisations: the International Food Policy Research Institute, Welthungerhilfe and Concern Worldwide. Half of all Indian children below five years of age are malnourished. Many Indian women, men and children affected by chronic undernourishment suffer from extreme hunger. According to the FAO definition, “extreme hunger” means that the intake of calories of a person is well below the required 1,800 kilocalories daily. Every single day, people in India die of starvation.

Malnutrition – also called “hidden hunger” – refers to deficiencies of calories, protein or nutrients. Thus malnutrition necessarily encompasses undernourishment; malnutrition makes people vulnerable to illnesses and almost always has serious physical and mental effects. For instance, children’s growth and brain-cell development are hampered.

Over the decades, Indian governments have tried a variety of plans and programmes to alleviate hunger. The latest initiative is based on the constitutional right to food: The National Food Security Act 2011, popularly known as Right to Food Bill, is one of the most discussed bills in India, ever since the cabinet has cleared it to give legal entitlement in December last year. It has not passed the parliament as yet.

What does the Bill say? The Bill ensures subsidised food to 75 % of the rural population and 50 % of the urban population. The proposed legislation would provide seven kilogrammes of rice, wheat and coarse grain per person per month at very low prices to “priority households” (the criteria who belongs to this category is defined by the government), similar to Below Poverty Line (BPL) families.

Guaranteed supplies

After the Bill becomes law, every person belonging to a priority household would be entitled to receive subsidised food every month from the state government. It will be distributed under the current Public Distribution System (PDS, basically government-run ration and fair price shops).

Besides food grains to the poor, the Bill also seeks to provide a minimum three kilogrammes of food grains per month per person under the general household category at a rate not exceeding 50 % of the market price. The Bill also confers a legal right on women and children and other special groups such as destitute, homeless or disaster- and emergency-affected persons living in starvation to receive meals free of charge or at an affordable price. Every pregnant woman and breast-feeding mother will be entitled to maternity benefits of 15 euro per month for a period of six months, assuming a coverage of about 2.5 crore (25 million) pregnant and breast-feeding women. According to estimates, the implementation of this bill would result in higher food subsidy by approximately 28,000 crore rupees (the equivalent of € 4.3 billion).

Many political parties have raised the issue of ­financial burden on the government. However, the economist and India expert Jean Drèze maintains that this is not a serious problem and can be sorted out with the resources the government has. The bottom-line of the Bill is ‘Hunger must go’.

All the coalition parties of the ruling government are expected to support the bill. But the main opposition party, the conservative Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), and others like the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M), have pointed to various loopholes and questioned the general feasibility of the bill.

The Indian government and social activists consider the Right to Food Bill a landmark in the field of national food security. The Right to Food Campaign-groups in India have been pressing not only for equitable and sustainable food systems, but also for entitlements relating to livelihood security such as the right to work, land reform and social security.

Once the Bill is implemented, the intrinsically social related schemes like the Mahatma Gandhi Na­tional Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA – it ensures 100 days per year of work at the legal minimum wage to one adult member of every rural family), the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS), the Mid-day Meal Scheme, the PDS, a revisit of the BPL list etc. will naturally come under this preview.

Controversial issues

The Bill is expected to result in multiple advantages like providing food to the hungry, reducing the child mortality rate and improving the public distribution systems. But there are several practical and theoretical aspects that could threaten the success. A practical issue is the identification of the priority groups. Who exactly is below the poverty line is a matter of controversy.

Not all state governments in India have clear criteria for defining the persons in need, and the central government uses parameters based on a survey conducted in the year 2002. It is extremely difficult to differentiate who belongs to BPL-group only through certain laid down criteria. Even if the criteria work, it is hard to ignore the recommendation and influence of political and caste-creed leaders who still play a decisive role in village politics. Another potential difficulty lies in including seasonal migrated laborers or Adivasi (India’s marginalised tribal people) in remote areas, who are often excluded from government help schemes because of their geographical location and way of life.

According to statistics, India produces more than enough grain to feed her own people. In the financial year 2010/11 India produced 181 million tons of grains. The proposed bill requires only 63 million tons. The problem therefore lies not in the lack of available food grains but in the system of storage and public distribution. The existing storage and delivery system – which were designed for present requirements – definitely cannot accommodate the proposed bill.

The present Food Bill, moreover, is likely to have similar results as the rural employment scheme MGNREGA. For example, a large number of the young generation who work in this scheme spend their wage on consumer goods like mobile phones or liquor, and very few of them use the money for basic needs such as food, education or health care. Most likely, many men will sell off their subsidised grains to buy liquor or other items, thus keeping women and children hungry.

In West Bengal, we have made the experience that the rural employment guarantee scheme is not implemented diligently. Political leaders have been paying money to people who hardly worked at all. Such payments can undermine the work ethic, even though agriculture means hard work and this sector employs more people in India than any other industry.

Ethical questions

There are also theoretical questions to the Food Bill, such as: What will be the consequence regarding the moral and psychological attitude of people who grow up with subsidised food? Is it morally correct to feed more than half the country’s population by government funds, and for how long? Does it not undermine the human potential and contradict the basic principal of human development, namely, to “help people to help themselves”? Can anyone really live in dignity, eating subsidised food? Such questions might seem insensitive to hungry people, but they matter.

However, preventing hunger is certainly a priority. It is a bitter irony to call India one of the fastest growing economies in the world, while half of her population suffer malnutrition. But before implementing the bill, it is necessary to build up enough food storage, an efficient and transparent public distribution system and an administration with accountability. There should be a mechanism to inform villagers about the rules and regulations of the bill and how to get hassle-free service. Not only the institution of the Panchayati Raj (the elected village councils that serve as the lowest tier of the government), but also rural-level NGOs and the traditional social structures of Adivasis in remote areas can play a vital role in disseminating the government’s ideas and policies.

Putting the Food Security Bill into practice will be a task too immense to tackle for the government alone, unless responsible community-based organisations are involved. While distributing food, the government also needs to draft a planned economic programme for youths by providing training, financial support and encouragement to start small scale enterprises in order to develop their own sustainable purchasing power. This option - to provide food plus work – may be difficult and time-consuming, but it is the most promising approach to achieve long term food security.