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Will the food security Bill ensure nutrition for the poor?

Sreelatha Menon  |  New Delhi 

States are expected to take responsibility for this, but the Bill ignores the nutritional crisis altogether

K V Thomas
Minister for Food

The inclusion of iron supplements, protein, dairy supplements and vegetables can be done gradually - this Bill is just the beginning

K V Thomas

The food security Bill will certainly ensure nutrition but it is the states that have to take steps for that. The draft Bill approved recently by the Group of Ministers is a fulfillment of a promise made by President Pratibha Patil in her first speech to Parliament to provide 25 kg of grain at Rs 3 a kg. That is where we started. Consultations followed on the people to be covered. We have been in constant touch with the National Advisory Council (NAC) and Economic Advisory Council (EAC) and the Planning Commission, besides several other stakeholders. NAC’s proposal was 90 per cent coverage for rural areas with 46 per cent for the priority sector. It wanted 50 per cent coverage in urban areas with 28 per cent for the priority sector. EAC’s proposal was for 28 per cent coverage for the priority sector and coverage for the general category depending on the availability of foodgrain.

So we have ensured maximum coverage. Now, for the content. NAC had suggested millet for Rs 1 and wheat and rice for Rs 2 and Rs 3 respectively. EAC suggested a price derived from the minimum support price. We have been able to incorporate NAC’s suggestions. As for pulses and oil, they were not in the picture. We are currently looking at practical ways of providing 7 kg of subsidised grain per individual. Protein and other supplements are already being addressed by other food schemes. There are so many projects on nutrition under implementation. These should be streamlined. Our goal was basically to make provision for the main grains at subsidised rates.

Besides, the states are taking their own initiatives to address nutrition. Chhattisgarh, for instance, provides cooked food for the poor at public counters at Rs 5. Some states like Rajasthan and Kerala provide pulses at subsidised rates. So the Bill does not stop states from doing so. One does not say protein supplements and iron supplements will never be addressed by the Act. But let us take one step at a time.

At present, the challenge is threefold to ensure that even the given provisions in the Bill can be implemented. First, we need godowns to store foodgrain. Second, we have to improve the public distribution system (PDS). And third, food production has to be trebled. We lift 30 per cent of foodgrain from the market for the PDS. The procurement mechanism also has to be improved.

A study by Jean Dreze and some students published last week says the PDS has improved in many states and is doing well. It also says very few people want cash transfers in place of grain. That is positive news for the proposed law.

The PDS would be set right with the Aadhar numbers and other interventions. Recently, we discovered that 20 million below poverty line families with ration cards had bogus names. So with such challenges we have to work constantly to improve the distribution machinery. The National Family Health Survey findings that half the population is anaemic and a large percentage is underweight and stunted are realities that have to be addressed. The inclusion of iron supplements, protein, dairy supplements and vegetables is not something that can be done through this Bill. Or maybe it can be done gradually — this Bill is just the beginning.

Besides, a central legislation can’t solve problems at the grassroots. We can’t cook food in Delhi and send it to people. It is for the states to do so. Besides, nutrition in the form of vegetables, pulses, milk and eggs can be provided through anganwadis and Midday Meal schemes. The cooked meal component in the Bill that provides for cooked meals twice a day for destitute, pregnant and lactating mothers can also address these matters. The Bill still has to go to Parliament so there is a long journey ahead and changes can always be introduced.

Ashwini KumarAshwini Kumar
Associate professor, Tata Institute of Social Sciences

The law that will be made does not think in terms of protein sources and that is a clear flaw

I visited the Juang tribals in Keonjhar recently. These were homes from where starvation deaths were reported and there was little food in them. Consequently, there was prolonged deprivation of nutrients. This nutritional crisis is neither reflected in our poverty estimates nor, now, in the food security Bill. The right to food campaign accepts that the per capita food availability has fallen. Activists realised that access would be an issue unless we universalised food entitlements. The National Advisory Council (NAC) draft moved away from universalisation.

Activists, including many in NAC, had suggested pulses and oil as part of food entitlements. But the right to food Bill that has now taken shape has gone back to cereals. The Supreme Court rulings in the right to food public interest litigation have reflected the concerns of a nutritional emergency in the country. It, therefore, asked for the universalisation of the Integrated Child Development Services and Midday Meal schemes. It is a fact that the law that will be made does not think in terms of protein sources and that is a clear flaw. There is no mention of oil either. NAC and the government are on the same page on this.

There is also a lack of understanding of the need to address nutrition and of talking in the broader context of a nutritional crisis in the country. The below poverty line (BPL) census being undertaken is a destitution census. If you look at the bottom 25 per cent of the population, calorie consumption has gone down from 1,683 in 1987-88 to 1,624 in 2004-05. These matters were brought to the attention of the government and NAC by N C Saxena in his report on the identification criteria for the BPL.

The International Food Policy Research Institute’s global hunger index puts India in the category of alarming, while the National Family Health Survey found that the proportion of underweight children remained unchanged from 1998-99 to 2005. About 47 per cent were underweight in the age-group 0-3 years. This was recorded in the India Shining period.

We have to read this as a nutritional emergency, which is different from a food emergency as in a famine. If in the first year of your birth you don’t have access to your dietary requirements then you fall into a death trap. It is not just an economic failure but a political and moral failure on the part of the government to address this nutritional emergency.

The original proposal for a right to food Bill asked for individual entitlements of 14 kg of cereals, a kg of pulses and a kg of oil. Now we are confined to cereals and some millet. Yet it is better than what has been suggested as an economically viable solution of mixing coarse grain with cereals to make it nutritious but unpalatable so that the well-to-do do not buy it. I’m not saying that you force unpalatable things down the throats of the poor. But at least provide what is essential for a person. While I won’t say one should stop giving foodgrain or target a few as is being proposed under the new Bill, the government can’t give only foodgrain.

The proposal for cash transfer that is also being talked about would mean chaos. That would mean that people would do without the foodgrain and use the cash for other things. Meanwhile, food production is as skewed against nutritional requirements as the food distribution is going to be.

We need at least 18 million tonnes of pulses but are stagnating at 13 million tonnes. When the whole world knows that half the country is anaemic, what stops the government from setting it right by providing iron- and iodine-fortified salt? The Bill doesn’t have a word on iron deficiencies. Why? It won’t cost the government much and it is the last thing where there is money to be made.

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First Published: Wed, July 27 2011. 00:45 IST