Tuesday, January 22, 2013

A Bill on the Table

Can you think of one thing that is common to all festivals? This element cuts across race, religion, class. This element is at the root of all civilization. This element is food.

Human beings have always appeased their gods with food and water. It is our way of saying that we acknowledge what is dearest, and we hope to always have this. If there was only one thing we could guarantee for ourselves, it would be food (and water and air). But, although we live in a democracy where the will of the masses – the undernourished masses – is supposed to prevail, we have not been able to guarantee this one small, sacred thing. Food.

I wish they’d just put it in the Constitution – that every citizen has a right to food. After all, fundamental rights such as equality, free speech, or the right to practice your religion – all of it hinges upon the right to life. A citizen who doesn’t have the means to produce food for herself/himself and the kids – a citizen who has not inherited enough land, whose access to water has been cut off – how do we guarantee life to such citizens?

For starters, a decent Food Security Act might help. Yet India has been dawdling on the National Food Security Bill. Although it aims to cover over 67% of our 1.2 billion population, the bill itself is far from ideal. Activists have argued against too much emphasis on APL-BPL. There will be questions like: Is s/he above or below the poverty line? What is the poverty line?

The Bill was cleared by the Union Cabinet in 2011 but Parliament has always been distracted by other debates. Finally, the Parliamentary Committee on Food, Consumer Affairs and Public Distribution has reportedly adopted the Food Security Bill, so this draft can be tabled in Parliament.

But the BJP in Chhattisgarh has beaten the UPA on this front. Last year, the state pushed through the Chhattisgarh Food Security Act (CFSA), whereby nearly 90% of the population will be entitled to basic foods through the Public Distribution System. It also allows free meals for children and pregnant women, and even rations to taken home, through anganwadi centres and schools. Also, keeping protein needs in mind, Chhattisgarh has followed the example of states like Tamil Nadu and Himachal Pradesh, and included subsidized pulses in the ‘grain’ package, as well as iodized salt.

‘Priority’ households include not just landless labourers but also those who work in urban areas in the informal sector, and construction workers. What’s more, to avail of these benefits, on the ration card, the eldest adult woman in the family will be considered as the head of the household.

Computerizing the PDS is one way of trying to plug leaks, and the state is also working towards bringing these records into the public domain. It hasn’t happened overnight though. Chhattisgarh has been working at this since 2004, and reportedly, these moves are showing results. Reports say that there is a dramatic decrease in the amount of ‘diverted’ subsidized grain.

The big question, of course, will be whether we can ‘afford’ this ‘burden’. But as anyone who feeds a family knows – we just have to! We’re not talking about new toys or a fresh coat of paint. We’re talking about food. Even if every single resource has to be diverted from every alternate use, we must do it.

Unless we can commit to making land available to all citizens so we can grow our own food, and enough water for irrigation. Until that happens, we owe ourselves this much – the right to food.

Published here.

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