India Takes Steps Toward Food Security

By Saad Anjum

Food security has been a source for debate in India’s government for several years. In 2011 Parliament looked at the National Food Security Bill in an effort to secure the right to food—a promise made by the governing coalition United Progressive Alliance, with the Indian National Congress as the leading party. In a recent session of Parliament, the bill was scheduled for a vote, but opponents obstructed the proceedings. Currently, a new, amended food security bill has been introduced into the Lok Sabha House for voting.

The food security bill is an attempt to alleviate undernutrition and malnutrition through a variety of programs and entitlements. Apart from contentious food grain entitlements, the bill includes children’s entitlements and maternity benefits. The children’s entitlements are cooked midday meals for all school-going children and nutritious food for all children under the age of six. These benefits are already in place as child nutrition programs mandated by the Supreme Court, but the food security bill turns the programs into permanent, legal entitlements. The bill’s maternity benefit is six thousand rupees in installments as decided by the central government for all pregnant women as well as free meals during pregnancy and for six months after childbirth. In addition to their immediate benefit to recipients, these entitlements open the door for further discussion and improvements for welfare, such as the right to food.

The United Nations has used the term “right to food” in different texts it has produced over the years. It is most clearly defined in the General Comment 12 (1999) to the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (1966, ratified by India in 1979). General Comment 12 states that the core content of the right to adequate food implies:

  • The availability of food in a quantity and quality sufficient to satisfy the dietary needs of individuals, free from adverse substances, and acceptable within a given culture
  • The accessibility of such food in ways that are sustainable and that do not interfere with the enjoyment of other human rights (United Nations 1999).

“By ratifying the 1966 UN Covenant, India as a state has committed itself for decades to provide access to adequate food for its people. The National Food Security Ordinance and ultimately the food security bill are major steps towards realizing that right through legislation,” says Yashar Saghai, MA, PhD, a fellow at Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics and director of the Global Food Ethics Project. The ordinance allows the food security bill to be carried out temporarily. The Parliament has six weeks—starting at the date of the declaration—to ratify the bill in order to make the ordinance’s effects permanent. To that end, a new food security bill was introduced into the lower house of parliament, Lok Sabha, on August 7th.

Why legislate on the food security bill now? There are, of course, moral reasons to favor it, but also strong political interests for supporting it or opposing it. The governing coalition United Progressive Alliance will receive tremendous public support for passing the bill and might have introduced the bill at a strategic moment to garner support for the national elections to take place next year. The suspicion that the governing coalition has political interests at stake here would explain why the bill is opposed in Parliament by other coalitions that are also seeking to win the upcoming national elections. Does a fight for political power really warrant the rejection of a bill that acknowledges the right to food and has the potential to provide some solid economic and social support to the disadvantaged populations?

Beyond politics as usual, are there serious reasons for opposing the food security bill? The most cited one is endemic corruption. The bill’s mechanism for the distribution of food rests on the use of the already established and, at times, corrupt Public Distribution System. The Public Distribution System is in place to distribute foodstuffs such as rice to Indian households at a subsidized price based on the household’s ration card. Part of the food supply ends up on the market to be sold at a high profit and therefore fails to provide households below the poverty line with access to adequate food.  However, it is worth noting that despite corruption, a majority of the food reaches households below the poverty line, as Jean Drèze argues in a detailed report for the New York Times on the food security bill, providing examples of the Public Distribution System’s successes in many states. This suggests that, ultimately, this reason for opposition is unsubstantiated. Dr. Saghai elaborates, “The opposition would need to provide proper and conclusive reasons either against the right to food per se, or against the view that it will benefit the targeted population. Opponents to the bill seem to argue the second point. The fact that some people will sneak in and obtain a benefit they are not entitled to is common when there are rights to certain benefits. This can hardly count against the bill unless its strategies for implementing the right to food had only a slim chance of successfully serving the population in need. But this is not the case,” Saghai says.

In fact, Bharatiya Janata Party, one of the largest parties in parliament and the main opposition party that resists the bill, actually passed its own version of the bill in the state Chhattisgarh in the form of the Chhattisgarh Food Security Act, ratified in December 2012. Paradoxically, Bharatiya Janata’s own achievements in Chhattisgarh, one of India’s poorest states, shows that such bills can be implemented affordably despite the party’s accusations targeted at the national food security bill.

Even if the bill will not solve India’s nutrition problems on its own, the government is making an effort to tackle the problem and realize the right to food. That is certainly a positive move in the right direction, setting a precedent for further lawmaking on welfare policies.

Saad Anjum is a undergraduate bioethics intern Global Food Ethics Project at the Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics and a writing seminars major at Johns Hopkins University

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Global Food Ethics
Saad Anjum
Sara Glass
Yashar Saghai

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