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In a nation that has lived on the edge of hunger and malnutrition for all of its six and a half decades of independence, food security makes eminent sense. It is not just a desirable policy objective but is also an essential condition for social stability. When you consider that in the last three hundred years more than 60 million people have died due to famines and although there has not been another major famine since the great Bengal famine of 1943, deaths from malnutrition continue till today in India. Any indicator of national well being has to be founded on a productive labour force. And for this to happen, we would need to ensure access to enough food by all at all times. That is why all successive elected governments in India have brought out a plethora of schemes, from employment guarantee schemes to food for work programmes, directed towards this end.
All over the world there is more or less universal acceptance now that food entitlement should be given the status of a basic right. There are binding international instruments such as the UN Declaration of Human Rights (1948), which provides for `the right to adequate standard of living including food', the International Convention on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (1966) which further provides for `an equitable distribution of world food supplies in relation to need' and the Universal Declaration on Eradication of Hunger and Malnutrition (1974) which declares that `every man, woman and child has an inalienable right to be free from hunger and malnutrition'. The Directive Principles of our Constitution, further aver that it is the duty of the state to raise the level of nutrition. This Constitutional obligation is further strengthened by the Supreme Court of India's ruling in Chameli Singh v/s the State of UP (1996) where it declared that the `right to live guaranteed in any civilized society implies the right to food'. The overall consensus on this issue has grown out of a convergence of opinion across all political parties helped by the media and opinion makers across the country.
So what has the new Food Security Act given us? Let us take a quick look at the key legal provisions. Subsidized food grains are to be made available to 75% of the total population, covering 90% of the rural and 50% of the urban population. Priority households (46% in rural areas and 28% in urban areas) will have a monthly entitlement of 35 kg (at the rate of 7 kg per person) at the subsidized price of Re 1 per kg of millets, Rs 2 per kg of wheat and Rs 3 per kg of rice. General households would comprise 39% of the rural and 12% of the urban population in phase I, and 44% and 22% of the rural and urban population in the final phase. They would have a monthly entitlement of 20 kg (at the rate of 4 kg per person) at a price not exceeding 50% of the current minimum support price for millets, wheat and rice). Further, the minimum coverage, entitlement and price would remain unchanged until the end of the XII Five Year Plan. The Act provides for an age appropriate meal, free of charge, for children aged 6 months to 6 years, through the local Anganwadi; for children below 6 months, it seeks to promote exclusive breast feeding. For children aged 6-14 years, it provides for a free mid-day meal. Further, it provides for a free meal as well as maternity benefits worth Rs 6000/- for every pregnant and lactating mother. The Act also provides for the setting up of state Food Commissions to monitor and evaluate the implementation of its provisions, to render advice to the state governments and to enquire into violations with the power to impose penalties up to Rs 5000. These provisions go well beyond providing a public distribution system that only targeted the below poverty line population (BPL), with a small subventionary provision, as an afterthought, to the above poverty line population (APL). Other programmes like MNREGA only guaranteed an income for one hundred days to those seeking work. These did not contain in any significant measure the large scale distress migration of labour, or substantially ameliorate poverty levels in rural households. Moreover, none of these anti-poverty programmes had such an extensive coverage.