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Abolishing hunger?

With Sonia Gandhi at the helm again, the National Advisory Council is expected to push forward the social sector agenda of the Congress—particularly the Food Security Bill. However, there are several loose ends to be tied up.

twitter-logo Manu Kaushik        Print Edition: June 27, 2010

What is the National Food Security Bill? When it becomes law, it will make the right to food a fundamental right for all citizens of the country. It guarantees food to the poorest people at a subsidised cost. It also gives people the right to approach courts and demand their right to food. If not delivered, officials can be held responsible and even punished.

What has been proposed? The Bill says that families below the poverty line (BPL) in rural or urban locations should be entitled to receive up to 25 kg of foodgrain at Rs 3/kg per month. At present, BPL families are provided with 35 kg of rice or wheat per month. Wheat is available at Rs 4.15/kg and rice at Rs 5.65/ kg. The Bill is still under preparation and a draft will be placed soon in the public domain for scrutiny and wider consultation.

Cost to government: At 25 kg of foodgrain per family, and given the Tendulkar Committee's estimate of 8.3 crore BPL households (which could be the basis of the National Food Security Bill), the government needs to spend up to Rs 54,200 crore a year.

Problems with the proposal: The biggest challenge for the proposed Bill is to reach the right target groups. There are several benchmarks for identifying the country's poor at present, each with a different set of determinants. If BPL cards issued by states are taken into account, the number adds up to 11.5 crore, while, according to the Planning Commission, it is 6.52 crore families. Also, there are delivery issues. The existing targeted public distribution system or TPDS is highly inefficient and most of the targeted beneficiaries are left out. Given the record of many Central schemes, there is a high probability that benefits may not reach the intended beneficiaries.

Global precedents: Only four countries have a law on food security: Argentina, Brazil, Ecuador and Guatemala. According to international practice, food security is linked to physical, economic and social well-being of individuals and includes availability of balanced diet, clean drinking water and sanitation. However, the bill doesn't talk about nutrition security.

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