By MALAVIKA VYAWAHARE
While the fracas over the anti-corruption legislation known as the Lokpal Bill dominated the most recent session of Parliament, another new bill that is likely to more directly affect the lives of hundreds of millions of Indians has received much less attention.
The National Food Security Bill 2011 promises a legal right to cheap food for the poorest in the country. While India currently provides subsidized wheat and rice to the poor, this legislation would make food cheaper and provide more of it to poor families. The bill aims to cover 75 percent of rural households and 50 percent of urban households.
So far, discussion of the bill in the Indian media has focused on the cost of providing more cheap food – the bill would increase government spending by more than 200 billion rupees, or $3.75 billion, annually. India’s agriculture minister, Sharad Pawar, has said it might be difficult for the government to buy enough grain to sustain the program. Congress party opponents argue that it is being introduced solely to garner votes ahead of upcoming elections.
A fundamental question about the bill remains: Would it actually alleviate hunger in India? India’s child malnutrition rates are worse than sub-Saharan Africa’s, and nearly half the country’s children are underweight, according to the World Bank. Improving the problem is seen as a crucial step the country’s development.
Several parts of the Food Security Bill make it hard to predict its impact on hunger.
First, the bill proposes a new way of identifying beneficiaries. Under the current system, the government provides subsidized food to everyone living below a poverty line. Under the new arrangement, households would be identified as “priority,” “general” or “excluded.” Priority and general families would receive subsidized food at different prices (those classified as priority would get a larger benefit). Excluded households would receive no subsidized food. The draft bill does not specify how, exactly, families would be put into these categories, leaving the details to the federal government.
The bill does attempt to address the biggest shortcoming of the current system, which is that many of the poor do not get the subsidized food they are entitled to. It does so by proposing that poor Indians get a food security allowance, or cash, along with a way that families could complain if they were not provided the food they should receive. One of the major concerns among nonprofit groups working with the poor, however, is that the money provided in lieu of food would go to the men of households, who might not use it to purchase food.
The bill has made an effort to empower women by recognizing them as heads of households, but without addressing how this would be enforced.
It is also unclear whether the agency that would handle complaints would be independent of the officials charged with providing subsidized food. The bill states that complaints would be investigated and resolved by district, state and national bodies. But these agencies would be under the direct control of the federal and state officials also responsible for providing subsidized food in the first place. State governments would also be required to set up vigilance committees, but those agencies’ powers would be limited to bringing violations to the attention of district officers and reviewing the implementation of the act.
Lastly, food would continue to be provided through the chaotic existing government food distribution system, which the proposal says the government should “endeavor to” overhaul. The absence of any time frame or penalties for not accomplishing that makes this aspect of the proposal merely a directive rather than enforceable. Many analysts argue that tackling inefficiencies in the current distribution system will require more than additional subsidies and more food. The Expert Committee on the National Food Security Bill set up by the prime minister, the Justice Wadhwa Committee established by the Supreme Court and a petition by a group of eminent economists have all highlighted this concern.
Perhaps it should come as no surprise, then, that some critics of the bill say that while it is a step forward, the proposal does not tackle the fundamental problems that cause so many in India to go hungry.