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‘The Food Security Bill is regressive’

The Planning Commission’s minimalist starvation line is perverse, says Biraj Patnaik, who has been working on the Right to Food Campaign for over a decade. If the government cannot move towards universal coverage for all rights, including food, it should stop expending energy on identifying the poor and should instead identify and exclude the rich from entitlements meant for the poor

How do you view the government’s move to fix the per capita expense of Rs 28 in urban areas and Rs 22 in rural areas as the poverty line?

Coming up with a poverty line is an exercise that has carried on for decades and should continue. Unfortunately, since 1996, this poverty line has been used as a cut-off in the estimation of poor for government schemes and also for inter-state allocation of central resources. We should not use methods to determine the number of poor, in order to target the poor. If the government, for whatever reason, cannot move towards universal coverage for all rights, it should take an exclusion approach to identification. Rather than spend its energies on identifying the poor, it would be way easier for them to identify the ‘rich’ and exclude them from entitlements meant for the poor. This approach was suggested by Kirit Parikh, a former member of the Planning Commission, in the context of the Food Security Bill, and has subsequently been endorsed by Jean Dreze and many other eminent economists. Having a ‘minimalist starvation line’ like the one that the Planning Commission has come up with to target benefits for people is outright perverse.

What is your analysis of the National Food Security Bill (NFSB)?

There is a strong moral imperative for legislation on the right to food in India. It is unconscionable that the second fastest growing economy in the world should have close to half its children malnourished.  

However, the National Food Security Bill in its present form does not go far enough. Take the PDS (public distribution system), for example. It legislates targeting and inequity in a way that takes us far from the directive principles of the Constitution. It ignores evidence from those states that have reformed the PDS that the PDS works best when it is universalised or near-universalised. Instead, not only does it target the PDS, for the first time it counter-poses the interests of farmers and consumers -- when close to 70% of farmers in India today are net purchasers of food. The grievance redressal system, which is the heart of the bill, has been whittled down. A number of critical programmes like pensions for the aged, widows and disabled have been left out of the bill even though they are very much part of the right to food case. I think that it is better not to have food security than to go ahead with this legislation that is regressive in many parts.  

Could you speak about the NFSB from the nutrition perspective?

Nutrition is not just about food, it is also about access to good quality primary healthcare, potable water and sanitation facilities. The relation between food and nutrition is the relation between, say, textbooks and education -- a necessary but insufficient condition. Since government departments and ministries work in silos, they do not contextualise nutrition as needing a multi-pronged approach. This bill reflects the lack of institutional understanding within the government on nutrition. None of the determinants of nutrition that are crucial for malnutrition are legislated through this bill, which is a missed opportunity for the nation. 

There is a need for greater convergent action in tackling malnutrition, not just between the health and women and child development ministries but also between ministries that deal with water and sanitation, agriculture, horticulture, food and public distribution and, most importantly, local self-governance institutions. Without this, there is little hope that we will manage the problem of malnutrition. We still do not have programmes in place to deal with the problem of severe acute malnutrition. Severely wasted children (8 million in India) have the highest risk of mortality, and we are ignoring the global evidence suggesting the need for community-based models for acute malnutrition. Only Madhya Pradesh and Orissa are pioneering this effort through state budgets.

While there is widespread acknowledgement within policy circles in India that the first thousand days are the most critical for dealing with child malnutrition and child survival, the government’s flagship programme, the ICDS (Integrated Child Development Services), continues to focus on an older age-group of children. Such fundamental concerns should have been addressed through the NFSB.

(Biraj Patnaik is Principal Adviser to the Commissioners of the Supreme Court on the right to food and is on the steering group of the Right to Food Campaign, a network of close to 2,500 grassroots organisations initiated in 2001) 

Infochange News & Features, July 2012