Business Today

Food Security Bill: Towards a Healthy Future

Print Edition: Jan 6, 2013

The demographic dividend lies at the heart of India's future. According to the 2001 census, India will be home to 484.86 million people in the age group of 15-34 in 2030. Undoubtedly, this chunk would comprise the workforce that is expected to fuel the country's economic growth.

Just that they need to be healthy to do any good, and India isn't exactly topping the charts when it comes to tackling hunger and malnourishment. According to the latest Global Hunger Index of the International Food Policy Research Institute, India ranks a low 65 out of 79 countries in terms of child mortality, malnourishment and low child weight. Even countries like Sudan and Niger fare better. The National Food Security Bill of 2011 is aimed at setting this right. "The Food Security Bill will go beyond the normal obligations of the state to a legal obligation," says Harsh Mander, Special Commissioner to the Supreme Court.

The Bill gives two categories of people the right to get foodgrains at subsidised prices - priority households and general households - but is silent on how a priority household would be identified. Priority households will be entitled to seven kg foodgrain per person and general households, not less than three kg. In fact, priority households would get coarse grains for one rupee, wheat for Rs 2 and rice for Rs 3 per kg.

65 India's rank among 79 nations in The Global Hunger Index

"This can be a big relief for families such as ours," says Digambar Swain, 27, a resident of Panchogaon village in Tigria block in Cuttack district of Orissa. Swain works as a security guard in a state public sector company. Adds Nirmal Kumar, who drives a cyclerickshaw for a living in Noida district of Uttar Pradesh: "This will greatly help me beat the high food prices." "The Bill gives a fillip to the existing schemes of the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) and mid-day meal," says Rajkishore Mishra, a 'right to food' activist in Orissa. ICDS, which started in 1975, seeks to nurture children below six years and pregnant and lactating mothers through supplementary nutrition, immunisation, and free health check-ups, among other facilities. However, it has not achieved much. The Food Security Bill aims to go further.

For instance, Pushpita Sahu, a lactating mother from Panchogaon village, complains that at present she gets only about four kg of take-home food supplements, apart from medicinal supplements, under ICDS. The new legislation provides pregnant and lactating mothers free meals during pregnancy for six months after childbirth, apart from a maternity benefit of Rs 1,000 for six months.

While exclusive breastfeeding would be promoted for children below the age of six months, children between six months and six years would get age-appropriate free meals. "The first 1,000 days of the child is important. If malnourishment sets in then, it is difficult to reverse it with any food or supplements later," says N.C. Saxena, National Advisory Council member. "The ICDS in the current form is not geared for this." Children in the age group six to 14 years would get one free meal in school as per the mid-day meal scheme.

The Bill aims to go beyond children and young mothers as well. Destitute persons would be entitled to at least one free meal every day; and all homeless persons entitled to affordable meals at community kitchens.

The catch? In a country with a poor track record of implementing government schemes, the Bill's noble intentions will fall flat if there are no systemic corrections - the public distribution system (PDS) and ICDS have been widely exploited by racketeers. What gives hope, however, is that states such as Chhattisgarh have shown things can change through computerisation of the entire PDS, smart cards and so forth. If the Centre can take the cue and better manage the food schemes, India can be a healthy nation.

The Food Security Bill is currently with the Standing Committee on Food, Consumer Affairs and Public Distribution, after having been introduced in the Lok Sabha in December 2011. The country is waiting.

Sebastian P.T.

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