National Food Security Bill: Blatant assault on the right of the working masses to guaranteed food

The UPA government is preparing to introduce a bill in parliament that is called the “National Food Security Bill”. Mazdoor Ekta Lehar condemns this bill as a blatant assault on the right of the working masses to guaranteed food. Far from ensuring any food security, the aim of this bill is to create the illusion that the UPA government is concerned about eradicating hunger and malnutrition, while in fact the bill guarantees nothing to the working masses of town and country.

The bill in its present form divides the people into those it declares are below the poverty line, and those above it. The bill declares that those above the poverty line, defined as earning more than Rs 12 per day, will be out of the purview of the act. It reduces the concept of food security to providing minimum calories in the form of wheat or rice to those it declares are below the poverty line – 25 kg of wheat or rice for a whole family. There is no question of providing pulses, cooking oil, fuel, and other necessities to the toiling people. In a word, it is an outright attack on the working masses being carried out in their name. It is an assault on those, including our Party, who have been fighting relentlessly over the years, that it is the right of every human born to society to be free from hunger and malnutrition, and that it is the duty of the state to ensure this.

Protection from hunger, which means adequate supply of food at affordable prices for all, is a basic human right. It is a right that belongs to all human beings by virtue of the fact that they are members of a modern civilized society. It is an indictment of the rule of the bourgeoisie that 63 years after independence, it is unwilling and unable to ensure minimum food and nutrition to the billions of working people of urban and rural India. Starvation deaths, deaths of infants and child-bearing women due to malnutrition etc. are regularly reported from different parts of the country. Toilers and tillers are forced to go to an early grave because of hunger, malnutrition and related diseases.

The struggle demanding that the state should guarantee adequate and healthy food for all citizens in all areas of the country has been gong on relentlessly for the last several decades. Under pressure of the people’s struggles and faced with critical food shortage in the cities, in 1960 the government started the Public Distribution System (PDS) as a means to ensure access to food grains for all citizens. Over the years the PDS has been riddled with hoarding, black-marketeering and other forms of corruption, effectively denying many poor people their right to subsidized food grain. The government worked to systematically reduce the scope and reach of the PDS, even as it claimed that it was setting up other schemes targeting specially needy sections.

Under the slogan that the Public Distribution system was corrupt, and that the government should withdraw “subsidies” to workers and peasants, the PDS was dismantled beginning 1997 under the then United Front government as part of the general anti social offensive of globalization through liberalization and privatisation. It was changed to target only ‘below poverty line’ households, thus depriving at one stroke, several crores of working people from access to the PDS. Since then, the struggle for a universal PDS and assured supply of food for all has been steadily gaining momentum. In the conditions of the recent steep hike in food prices and food shortage being reported all over the country, this struggle has become especially intense.

The program of the Communist Ghadar Party released in 1998 called for struggle to create a modern universal public distribution system which will ensure that all essentials of mass consumption were made available at affordable prices, and ensure that no one was a victim of hunger and malnutrition. The program of CGPI calls for the nationalisation of external trade and domestic wholesale trade, bringing them under the control of organizations of the people. Peasants in the countryside must be guaranteed procurement of their produce by the state at remunerative support prices, while workers in the cities must be guaranteed supply of food and all essential items of consumption at affordable rates, eliminating completely the role of middlemen in the whole process. Only such a revolutionary reorientation can ensure protection against hunger and malnutrition. The demand for universal PDS and for halting the expansion of private corporations in food trade have over time gained support and become part of the common demands of working class organizations and other people’s organizations.

Every time elections are around the corner, the bourgeois political parties promise subsidized food grains to some section of the people, in an effort to secure votes for themselves. However, once the governments are formed, whether at the centre or in the states, these promises are rarely implemented. What people have been demanding and struggling for is assured food supply at affordable rates for all, as a right and not as a concession to this or that section, not as an election sop to garner votes for this or that party.

It is in this context that when the Congress led UPA government came to power for the second time in 2009, the President of India, in her first address to the joint session of Parliament after the 15th Lok Sabha election, had announced that the UPA Government would pass a legislation called the “National Food Security Act” (NFSA) which would entitle, by law, every family below the poverty line (BPL) in rural as well as urban areas to 25 kg of rice or wheat a month at Rs 3 a kg. On March 19, 2010 the empowered Group of Ministers under the Union Cabinet, headed by Finance minister Pranab Mukherjee, cleared the draft of the Food Security Bill which was then circulated for opinions.

The draft Bill has been resolutely opposed by various organizations fighting for the rights of the poor and all sections of the working people. The draft completely ignores the food and nutritional needs of people and in fact proposes to give less than the current entitlement of 35 kg of food grain per household, as mandated by the Supreme Court orders.

The multiple legal entitlements guaranteed by the Supreme Court of India already grant the right of 35 kg of food grains per household along with other entitlements such as reduced prices for the PDS grain under Antyodaya Anna Yojana for vulnerable sections of society, supplementary nutrition for infants and young children under ICDS, maternity entitlements under NMBS and Janini Suraksha Yojana, school mid-day meals, old age pensions and addressing needs of the homeless and urban poor, street children, single women and infants under six months. The present draft of the Bill proposes to reduce this to a single entitlement of 25 kg of food grain per household.

The Bill restricts this entitlement to just BPL households (as per Planning Commission estimates). Pointing to the high child malnutrition rates in India (46% and among the highest in the world) and the high maternal mortality, largely attributable to high malnutrition among women, in a letter to the Prime Minister, the “Right to Food Campaign” has demanded a universal Public Distribution System covering all citizens, including edible oil and pulses in addition to cereals. The proposal to replace food entitlements by cash has also been criticized as a means that will create further food insecurity.

Faced with all this opposition, the government is reported to have sought more time to work on the draft.

Further, given that there are at present many conflicting estimates of what constitute BPL, with the central government putting it at 6.5 crore households while states have issued BPL cards to more than 11 crore households, the Planning Commission has been asked to make a fresh estimate of the number of BPL households. A committee headed by Suresh Tendulkar, former chief of the Prime Minister's Economic Advisory Council, has estimated the BPL population to be around 38 per cent with the base year of 2004-05, which puts the figure at more than 8 crore households.

The development of events clearly show the utter callousness and cynicism of the UPA government and the ruling bourgeois class it represents, towards the plight of the poor and working people. The promise of bringing in the NFSA is, at best, a political move intended to shore up credibility for the government, which has taken a severe beating due to its failure to prevent skyrocketing of prices of essential commodities in recent months. The present Congress party led UPA government, like other governments that have previously held power at the centre, is committed to serve the interests of the bourgeoisie. It has no interest in really solving the problems of poverty, hunger and malnutrition, price rise and food shortage, that are causing untold misery for the workers and peasants, the masses of working people of urban and rural India.

No government that serves the interests of the bourgeoisie, whether it is the Congress party led UPA or the BJP led NDA or any other coalition of bourgeois parties, has either the interest or the capacity to guarantee adequate food and protection against hunger for all members of society. Only the working class, by taking political power in its hands, can reorganize the economy and carry out such a revolutionary program which will bring about an end to the problem of poverty and hunger that plague millions of people all over the country.

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