The Right to Food Bill in India
Addressing a joint session of Parliament earlier this summer, the President of India announced that India will soon pass a Food Security Act, which will ensure at least 25kg of wheat at Rs. 3 per kg to every household below the poverty line. Since then there has been a raging debate on the scale and scope on the potential Act.
Two drafts of the proposed legislation have been passed around policy circles: a narrow version that mainly focuses on the delivery of grain to poor households through reforms of India’s large food subsidy programme and another prepared by activists who are part of the Right to Food Campaign, a people’s movement that hopes to enshrine broader entitlements to food in law.
Food reform and state accountability
In this context, the Institute of Development Studies in collaboration with the Planning Commission of the Government of India and the Centre for Jawaharlal Nehru Studies at Jamia Millia Islamia University held a two day workshop on 'The Right to Food and Reforming the Public Distribution System in India.' Since the 1950's, the Public Distribution System (PDS), has been a universal entitlement, is among India's largest social assistance programmes. It aims to achieve two key objectives – maintaining stability of grain prices through establishing minimum procurement prices and providing subsidized basic food grains, sugar and cooking fuel to those in need.
In 1997, the PDS was reformed and converted from a universal to a targeted programme, the TPDS, which focused on different levels of subsidy for three categories of households: APL (above poverty line), BPL (below poverty line) and Antodaya (ultra poor) households. IDS members of the Centre for the Future State at IDS has been researching the PDS in Delhi, asking how reforms have impacted the ability of groups representing the poor to make claims and hold the state accountable. The urgency of the Right to Food drafts, offered an opportunity to discuss some of the key issues in reforming the PDS in India.
Held on 17 and 18 July, the workshop was unique in that it brought together stakeholders from different camps – senior state and central government officials, activists from the Right to Food Campaign, nongovernmental organizations and academics. While discussions covered a wide range of issues related to the act, there was a special focus on reforming the existing Public Distribution System. Participants presented their visions of what the Act ought to contain, the policy context within which it was likely to be enacted and innovative state level experimentation on improving the implementation of the current system.
Areas of debate
Several points of contention emerged over the two day discussion. The first was general and related to the scope of the act – should the act cover the broad set of issues that relate to food security, including land reform, agricultural policy etc. or should the act be limited to concrete food entitlements that the state had responsibilities for?
Second, who should the act cover? On the one hand, given the problems with identifying the poor and the large errors in existing BPL lists, there was a strong case presented for universal coverage. On the other hand, others argued that agricultural production, resource and capacity constraints might initially call for some form of targeting.
Third, how specific should the Act be in terms of implementation? Given the range of interesting innovations presented, there was some consensus that various responsibilities should be decentralized and states should be allowed to innovate and adapt the provisions under the Act to their own context.
Finally, what forms of accountability and grievance redressal would be appropriate to ensure that the right is realizable? Participants felt quite strongly that without appropriate mechanisms for attributing responsibility among various levels of accountability and strong sanctions for implementation failures, the Act would not be meaningful.
These issues will continue to be debated in the coming months. The Act that is tabled in parliament will be a product of public debate, political negotiation and policy maneuvering. The present moment represents a historic opportunity in India. If shaped well, the Act can grant a concrete realizable right to food for all Indians and secure freedom from hunger.
Anu Joshi is a Research Fellow with the Governance Team and a Programme Convenor for the Centre for the Future State
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