From Hunger to Food Security: Civil Services Mentor Magazine May 2013

From Hunger to Food Security

The Union Cabinet, headed by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh,
on 19 March 2013 approved the National Food Security Bill. The food security
bill approved is directed towards giving the right to food to around 67 per cent
of India’s 120-crore population. The amendments to the Bill will guarantee 5 kg
of foodgrains per person per month, while families in the poorest of the poor
will continue to get 35 kg of grains per month. As per the bill around 800 crore
people will be entitled to get five kilos of subsidised grain per month. Rice
will be made available at 3 Rupees per kilo; wheat will cost 2 rupees a kilo and
cereal will be sold for 1 Rupees per kilo. The beneficiaries are supposed to be
decided by state governments, while the criteria to exclude 33 per cent of
population would be provided by the Planning Commission, Thomas said. The scheme
will be linked to the Aadhar scheme which provides every citizen with a unique
identification number that’s linked to a database that includes the biometrics
of all card-holders. It is also evident from the present year budget, that 90000
crore Rupees is allocated for spending on food subsidies with the government
setting aside an extra 10000 crore Rupees for the bill. In earlier versions, the
Food Security Bill assigned subsidised grains on the basis of priority and
general groups, which were demarcated on the basis of poverty levels. The
Cabinet gave its nod to the 71 amendments proposed by the Food Ministry,
including the one that said the 2.43 crore Antyodaya Anna Yojna beneficiary
households will continue to get their quota of 35 kg grains a month under the
public distribution system.

Using the census data of 1982, the population was divided
into 16 groups defined by age, gender and activity, with recommended calorie
intakes varying from 300 calories for children below 1 year, to 3,800 calories
for a young man doing heavy work. The average norm was derived as a weighted
average: 2,435 and 2,095 calories per person respectively for rural and urban
areas, rounded down to 2,400 and up to 2,100. These nutrition norms have since
been the accepted basis for poverty studies in India. This is a minimalist
definition of poverty, however, since no spending norms are set for essential
non-food items such as fuel (for cooking and lighting), clothing, shelter,
transport, medical care or education. A household observed to be above the
so-called poverty level expenditure satisfies only the nutritional norm and may
not be able to access adequate amounts of other necessary goods and services
from its non-food expenditure.

Highlights of the Bill

  • The Bill proposes foodgrain
    entitlements for up to 75 percent of the rural and
    up to 50 percent of the urban
    population. Of these, at least 46 percent
    of the rural and 28 percent of the urban
    population will be designated
    as priority households. The rest will be
    designated as general households.

  • Priority households will be entitled to 7 kg of subsidised foodgrains
    per person per month. General households will be entitled to at least 3 kg.
  • The central government will determine the percentage of people in each
    state that will belong to the priority and general groups. State governments
    will identify households that belong to these groups.
  • The Bill proposes meal entitlements to specific groups.
    These include: pregnant women and lactating mothers, children between the
    ages of six months and 14 years, malnourished children, disaster affected
    persons, and destitute, homeless and starving persons.

  • Grievance redressal mechanisms will be set up at the district, state,
    and central levels of government.
  • The Bill proposes reforms to the Targeted
    Public Distribution System.

Key Issues and Analysis

  • The Bill classifies beneficiaries into three
    groups. The process of identifying beneficiaries
    and placing them into these groups may lead
    to large inclusion and exclusion errors.
  • Several entitlements and the grievance
    redressal structure would require state
    legislatures to make adequate budgetary
    allocations. Implementation of the Bill may
    be affected if states do not pass requisite
    allocations in their
    budgets or do not possess adequate funds.
  • The Bill does not provide a rationale for the
    cut-off numbers prescribed for
    entitlements to priority and general
  • The grievance redressal framework may overlap
    with that provided in the Citizens’
    Charter Bill that is pending in Parliament.
  • Schedule III of the Bill specifies goals which
    may not be directly related to food
    security. It is unclear why these have been
    included in the Bill.
  • The Bill provides similar definitions for
    starving and destitute persons. However,
    entitlements to the two groups differ.

The year 2013 marks the 70th
anniversary of the Bengal Famine which resulted in the
death of an estimated 1.5 to 3 million children,
women and men during 1942-43. A constellation
of factors led to this mega-tragedy,
such as the Japanese occupation of Burma, the
damage to the aman(kharif) rice crop both
due to tidal waves and a disease epidemic
caused by the fungus Helminthosporium oryzae , panic
purchase and hoarding by the rich,
failure of governance, particularly in relation
to the equitable distribution of the available food
grains, disruption of communication due to
World War II, and the indifference of the then
U.K. government to the plight of
the starving people of undivided Bengal.


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