A couple of months ago, The Honorable President of India promulgated an Ordinance on the National Food Security that seeks to give legal rights to 67 per cent of the population over subsidised grains every month.
The detailed version of ordinance can be found here. The beneficiaries will be identified by the States, which will also implement the programme under the Targeted Public Distribution Scheme.
The ordinance will have to be ratified within six weeks of the commencement of the next session of Parliament. As we prepare this note, the monsoon session of the parliament has just begun and this is certainly one of the most important of issues to find its space in the discussions at the high hbe debated in this session.
It is also important to note that in the election promises of United Progressive Alliance in 2009, ensuring Food security within 100 days of second-tenure, was high on the list. We are almost at the end of that tenure before the discussion has finally reached the parliament.
The food security act could have been a culmination of the long struggle to ensure a hunger and malnutrition free India.
However, in its present form, the Ordinance is being opposed by the Right to Food Campaigners (constituting a large number of grass-root organizations across India) on various counts.
The suggestions made by the campaigners include a further increase of entitlements that are being proposed as well as a broadening of the scope of the concept of ‘right to food’ itself, so as to include crucial issues such as land, agriculture and water.
It needs to be noted that, all this is happening in a situation where certain vested interests have stepped up their campaign in reducing the problem of mal-nutrition in India to an an illusory one, resulting from bad measurement!
There have been strong criticisms about the government taking the ordinance route on an important issue like the Food Security. Some have even termed it a way of short-circuiting informed debate in the parliament.
An ordinance is an executive order to pass laws when Parliament is not in session. It remains effective for six months from the date of passage within which period it must be replaced with a permanent law that needs to be passed by both houses of Parliament.
However, various criticisms notwithstanding, the fact remains that even in its somewhat limited scope, this Ordinance is a groundbreaking one and will have a positive impact across the nation.
It could be seen as a first step towards the ultimate goal of a comprehensive (and universal) food security act. Experts also believe that access to subisidized food would help the poor beneficiaries save on food expenditures and leave more disposable income in the hands of the beneficiaries to do more spending on health and education.
In this context, it becomes exceedingly important that ActionAid India through its partners and ongoing campaigns take a proactive stand supporting the broad advocacy positions of the nationwide Right to Food Campaign, and its efforts to convince the government to make positive revisions in the Ordinance and incorporate a specific timeframe for implementation.
LIMITATIONS OF THE CURRENT VERSION
The Ordinance’s narrow vision on the prerequisites of food security, restricted mainly to grain entitlements under the existing Public Distribution System, need to change significantly.
According to NCRB data, more than 2,50,000 farmers have committed suicide after 1995 in rural India. In this situation, a right to food legislation that does not address the ongoing agrarian crisis in the countryside will remain severely limited in its scope.
In addition, it is observed by various advocacy groups across the country that the focus of the legislation remains only on the access and availability aspects of the right to food and not on the nutritional dimension.
More worryingly, important social determinants like access to healthcare, drinking water, sanitation, etc have been completely ignored.
There are fears expressed from various quarters that commercial interests will be encouraged in the procurement and distribution of food entitlements in contravention to many existing Supreme Court orders.
It is indeed a grave situation and the ‘Right to Food Campaign’ needs to be strengthened with mobilization of people and opinion around the issue, so that the problem of hunger is addressed by the government at a more fundamental level.
We endorse the various issues raised by the Right to Food Campaign in its recent press release which urged the UPA government to bring the Ordinance through only after sufficient debate and discussion in Parliament.
The broad aspects of the National Food Security Ordinance that need attention are listed out below:
ActionAid India has been in complete solidarity with the nationwide movement for the Right to Food, over the last decade or so. We have been an active part of the campaign demanding a comprehensive food security act – both at the national level and in terms of state level initiatives and public action.
Our partners and various peoples’ formations promoted and supported by us have been strengthening the campaign across the country.
We urge everyone to be part of the public debates and campaigns that aim at strengthening the Ordinance, and help make this historic legislation more inclusive and responsive.
(The author wishes to acknowledge the contributions made by Oommen in preparing this note. You can contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org)
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