Dr. Joe Thomas *
The National Food Security Bill, 2013 is a bill enacted by the Indian parliament to provide for subsidised food and nutritional security to the people, in human life cycle approach, by ensuring access to adequate quaintly of quality food at affordable prices to people to live a life with dignity.
This Bill would provide subsidised food grain, through the national Public Distribution System (PDS) (‘Ration Shops’) to 75% of India’s estimated 833 million rural population and 50% of an estimated 377 million urban population and dubbed as one of the largest social security scheme in the world.
According to the World Bank reports India accounts for a third of the world’s poor. Malnutrition, particularly among children is more common in India than in Sub-Saharan Africa. According to UNICEF report one in every three malnourished children in the world lives in India. About, 46 per cent of all children below the age of three are too small for their age, 47 per cent are underweight and at least 16 per cent are wasted. Many of these children are severely malnourished
Some of the provisions of this bill has specific entitlements for women and poorest of the poor of the country. For children in the age group of 6 months to 6 years; an age-appropriate meal, free of charge, through the local anganwadi (pre-school), for children aged 6-14 years, one free mid-day meal every day (except on school holidays) in all government and government-aided schools, up to Class VIII. For children below six months, “exclusive breastfeeding shall be promoted”. There is also provision for children who suffer from malnutrition; to provide meals free of charge “through the local anganwadi”.
Every pregnant and lactating mother is entitled to a free meal at the local anganwadi (during pregnancy and six months after child birth) as well as maternity benefits of Rs 6,000, in instalments.
This bill has radically altered the definition of ‘head of the house hold’ with long term implications for social reform and women’s empowerment. A ‘head of the household’ will be the eldest woman, who is not less than eighteen years of age, in every eligible household, for the purpose of issue of ‘ration cards’. Where a household at any time, does not have a women or a women of eighteen years of age or above, but has a female member below the age of eighteen years, then the eldest male member of the house hold shall be the head of the household till the female member attaining the age of eighteen, shall receive the ‘ration card’
Through this scheme, the ‘Priority households’ are entitled to 5 kgs of food grains per person per month, and ‘Antyodaya’ (Antyodaya Ann Yojana was started in March, 2001, for the Below Poverty Line (BPL) households to 35 kgs per household per month. The prices for the food for the next three years are given in Schedule I : Rs 3/2/1 per kg for rice/wheat/millets.
The identification of eligible households is left to state governments, subject to the scheme’s guidelines for Antyodaya, and subject to guidelines to be “specified” by the state government for Priority households. The identification of eligible households is to be completed within 365 days. The lists of eligible households are to be placed in the public domain and “displayed prominently”.
The governance of this bill also has several pioneering efforts. The Bill provides for the creation of State Food Commissions. The main function of the State Commission is to monitor the implementation of the Act, give advice to the states governments and their agencies, and inquire into violations of entitlements. State Commissions also have to hear appeals against orders of the District Grievance Redressed Officer and prepare annual reports. The Bill provides for a two-tier grievance redresses structure, involving the District Grievance Redresses Officer (DGRO) and State Food Commission. In addition, state governments are expected to put in place an internal grievance redressal mechanism which may include call centres, help lines, etc.
Mandatory transparency provisions envisaged in this bill include; (1) placing all PDS-related records in the public domain; (2) conducting periodic social audits of the PDS and other welfare schemes; (3) using information and communication technology “to ensure transparent recording of transactions at all levels”; and (4) setting up vigilance committees at all levels to supervise all schemes under the Act.
The Food Commissions have powers to impose penalties and the Commission can authorise “any of its members” to act as an adjudicating officer for this purpose. In case of “non-supply of the entitled quantities of food grains or meals to entitled persons”, such persons will be entitled to a food security allowance from the state government, as prescribed by the central government.
Under this bill, the main obligation of the Central Government is to provide food grains (or, failing that, funds) to state governments, at prices specified in Schedule I, of the bill, to implement the main entitlements. The Central Government has wide-ranging powers to make Rules “in consultation with the state government”. The main obligation of state governments is to implement the relevant schemes, in accordance with the Central Government guidelines. State governments also have wide-ranging powers to make Rules. They are free to extend benefits and entitlements beyond what is prescribed in the Bill, from their own resources. Local Authorities and ‘Panchayati Raj’ Institutions are empowered to proper implementation of the Bill in their respective areas, and may be given additional responsibilities by notification.
The Bill has four schedules (these can be amended “by notification”). Schedule I prescribes issue prices for the PDS. Schedule II prescribes “nutritional standards” for midday meals, take-home rations and related entitlements. Schedule III lists various “provisions for advancing food security”. Schedule IV specifies a minimum food grain allocation for each state; in the case of states that might lose otherwise under the Act, this essentially means a continuing of existing allocations.
The government says it will spend about US $4 billion a year on the programme. However, some analysts says, it could cost about $23 billion a year and take a third of annual grain production.
This effort should be considered as an investment to the India’s future infrastructure needs. People are the most important infrastructure of any country.
* Dr. Thomas the Executive Director of Partners in Population and Development- An intergovernmental organization promoting South-South Cooperation in the area of population and development. This is his personal opinion.