The National Advisory Council (NAC), headed by Congress Party President Sonia Gandhi, has released an Explanatory Note on the proposed National Food Security Bill, and asked for comments on this note from all interested parties by 15th March. This Explanatory Note is in support of a draft National Food Security Bill that would give conditional entitlements of fixed quantities of rice, wheat or coarse grains at subsidised prices to ‘priority’ and ‘general’ category households.
The NAC declares, in the opening sentence of the Explanatory Note, that the proposed food security law is “aimed at protecting all children, women and men in India from hunger and food deprivation”. However, the concrete proposal is that public distribution of food grains should cover three-fourths of the country’s population (90%of rural and 50%of urban population) in a phased manner. The implicit assumption is that the rest of the population can afford to buy foodgrains from the market and do not need any subsidy. No evidence is presented in support of this assumption.
The official National Sample Survey of 2006/07 showed that 80% of the urban population spends less than Rs. 1800 per month per head. With such a total expenditure budget, a working person cannot purchase his or her full food requirements at the prevailing prices in the open market.
There is thus a yawning gap between the stated aim and the concrete proposal being put forth by the NAC. The stated aim is to protect all from food deprivation. The concrete proposal is only to protect some “vulnerable households”, and that too only their access to wheat, rice or coarse grains to a limited extant. Whether those left out, which includes 50% of the urban population, can fulfil their food needs, is left to chance.Even in the case of the identified vulnerable households, only food grains are guaranteed. Whether they can afford to buy pulses, milk, cooking oil, vegetables and other ingredients of a nutritious diet is left to chance. In the context of shockingly high levels of malnutrition among adolescents women and men, the NAC has left out pulses and oils from the PDS food basket and yet it talks about nutritional security - shows how serious it is about the issue!
An Expert Committee set up by the Manmohan Singh government, headed by Dr. C. Rangarajan, published its Report in January 2011, arguing that the coverage of public food distribution be reduced to less than half the population in line with the “availability of food grains with the government”.This Report was met with widespread condemnation by numerous organisations of the working people. The NAC argues in its explanatory note that it is possible to cover 75% of the population in a phased manner, with a 15%-20% increase in public procurement.
Neither the Expert Committee nor the NAC accepts the principle that food is a universal right and must be guaranteed for all. In place of a universal right they propose conditional entitlements. The law they propose will not permit any worker to approach the courts demanding that food be made available at prices that his or her family can afford. What any working family is entitled to covers only the staple, and the price the family pays and the quantum of foodgrains obtained will depend on whether a family has a ‘priority’ card, a ‘general’ card, or no card at all. By continuing to classify the population as “priority” and otherwise, the NAC has not only denied universality of right to food, but divides the people, with serious consequences for their self respect and unity of purpose in fighting for the right to food as a constitutional right for all which is justicable. The division of the population into “priority”, “General” and the third category of non card holders, is no different in essence from the present division of the population into BPL and APL and the no card category. This division has been and remains arbitrary. It has been and will be used by the state and ruling class parties to bestow favours on some, and deprive others, all based on vote bank politics.
The Explanatory Note includes many elements designed to pacify public opinion, such as measures to induce states to procure and distribute food grains within their territory, and floating the idea of a reformed Public Distribution System where “Fair Price Shops will be managed by community institutions accountable to their customers”.
The NAC is being presented as the “better alternative” or the “lesser evil” in comparison to the Expert Committee. “This is the best we can get, so let us support the proposal of NAC” is the argument being used to compromise the struggle for food being guaranteed universally as a matter of right.
What is the reason for the adamant refusal of any of the advisory bodies of the government to actually propose public food distribution with universal coverage? Lack of financial resources is often cited, but this is only a convenient excuse. The lakhs of crores of rupees advanced by the Central Government in recent years to big capitalist companies and banks in the name of ‘stimulating’ the economy has exposed the hollowness of the ‘lack of money’ argument.
The truth is that the principle that food is a universal right goes against the interests of capitalist profiteers. Far from recognising food as a universal right, the capitalist governments have been busy in expanding the scope for capitalist corporations to mint money from food trade.
This truth was let out by the Expert Committee Report, which argued against increasing the share of public food grain procurement (currently around one-third of total production) by claiming that it would “distort the market prices”. If public procurement becomes larger than private procurement, it would deprive Reliance and other monopoly capitalists, Indian and international, of the prospects of reaping maximum profits from food in the coming years.
Public procurement and storage should be a very critical part of provision of universal guarantee of food security. However, this would mean that private players would not have the kind of space that they currently enjoy and which they are demanding even more of, to make their speculative profits. These profits are made by pushing prices up or down, through hoarding and speculation in futures markets, etc. The bourgeoisie would not like to give up minting maximum profits in trading of food products like in other commodities. The government, defending the interests of the bourgeoisie, is unwilling to translate the concept of universal protection from hunger and malnutrition into practice.
Numerous organisations and collectives have come forward to take up the cause of a universal PDS and are not willing to accept anything less. Workers and peasants cannot and must not compromise on the principle of universal and unconditional coverage, which has been clearly enunciated by all forces in struggle for this right. Every child, woman and man must have access to affordable and adequate food. The State must take responsibility to ensure this and cannot leave anything to chance. Food cannot be confined to wheat, rice and coarse grains. People need not only starch but also proteins, vitamins and other nutrients.