People's Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)


No. 16

April 18, 2010

Draft Bill Makes Mockery of Right to Food


Brinda Karat


THE cabinet has sent the draft of Food Security Bill back to the Empowered Group of Ministers (eGOM) headed by the finance minister, Pranab Mukherjee, reportedly at the behest of the Congress president. This follows the widespread protest against the draft bill by Left parties and also activists working on the issue. The present bill is an example of how a recognised social requirement, in this case food security, can be turned around to fit into an economic policy of cutting subsidies and entitlements for the people. If the bill in its present form is accepted, it will save the government (according to one estimate) over Rs 4000 crore. The bill will lead to food insecurity, not food security, as it cuts down on existing entitlements and does not include any other essential items in its ambit.




According to the preamble of the bill, �It is an act to provide a statutory framework for assured food security to all citizens of India to promote their active and healthy life thereby enabling them to contribute productively to nation building� (emphasis added). However, in its contents, contradictory to its preamble and clause 3.1, the bill is not for all citizens but excludes by law a substantial section of citizens not covered by the Planning Commission�s dubious estimates of poverty.

Till 1996 India had a universal public distribution system which was converted into a targeted system with the implementation of neo-liberal policies. The division between BPL (below poverty line) and APL (above poverty line) card holders, on the basis of quotas linked to Planning Commission poverty estimates, has been discussed and critiqued in these columns several times. Further, we have noted how in the last five years the central government has been excluding more and more people from food subsidies by cutting down the food allocations to the APL sections. A national average of only around 20-25 per cent of the earlier allocations to APL is maintained. Some states like Kerala have suffered more, with the cuts going up to 90 per cent.

Under clause 4.1 a targeted public distribution system only for BPL families is to be established. Under clause 4.2, �The ministry of food and distribution shall fix the number of identified BPL families for each state on the basis of latest available poverty estimates notified by the Planning Commission.� At present, depending on availability of foodgrains, those defined as APL also get subsidised rations. The proposed act would forbid any state government to give any part of the centrally provided foodgrains to APL families. Clause 4.3 states, �However, if a particular state government is to extend its support to certain additional families in the state over and above that provided under clause 3(2) (number of BPL families decided by the Planning Commission), it may do so but only by separate identification of such additional families and with its own budgetary resources.� The present bill wants to further target the system by totally eliminating the APL category from the right to subsidised foodgrain, Clause 6(2) states that for the �above poverty line families the central government may make some allocations of foodgrains at issue prices, which shall not be lower than the cost of acquisition.� Thus if the present bill is adopted, it will be illegal to give any central subsidy to the APL sections.




These draconian clauses not only eliminate a whole category of people, APL (i.e. according to present definition those earning more than 11 rupees a day), from benefits under the public distribution system (PDS) but also recognise the Planning Commission as the sole legal authority to determine the numbers of poor in the country.

It is said the eGOM has referred the issue of numbers of the poor to the Planning Commission. The various statements of the Planning Commission chairman, Montek Singh Ahluwalia, show that the issue of accurately estimating the numbers of poor is not the aim at all. The aim is to decide the resources available and to cook the poverty numbers accordingly. Thus, while Ahluwalia declares in one interview that the Planning Commission will accept the Tendulkar estimates of around 8.32 crores, in another he says that the figure cannot go up more than 7.5 crores. It is as though there is a bargaining going on for a commodity in the market.

Far from being helpful, a decision to accept the Tendulkar report will actually lead to further deprivation. The methodology of the committee is extremely questionable. For example, it reduces the per capita calorie requirement per day from the present 2400 to 1700 in rural India. Apart from the methodology, even the increased number of BPL families is actually less than the number recognised by state governments who have rejected Planning Commission estimates. The present number of BPL cards given by state governments is for over 10.68 crore families, compared to the number (6.52 crore poor families) the Planning Commission recognises. The projected �increase� by Tendulkar committee takes it to 8.52 crores. Thus if the Tendulkar estimates are accepted, it will mean that state governments will have to reduce the numbers of BPL card holders who are presently getting the benefit of food subsidy.

The question is: Why should the centre accept the lowest estimates and the most questionable methodology of Tendulkar committee as compared to other three new estimates of poverty? In an exercise for the rural development ministry, the N C Saxena committee estimated that at least 50 per cent of the population should be considered poor on the basis of different social categories. The Wadhwa committee, set up by the Supreme Court which has identified the weaknesses in the PDS, suggested an income of at least Rs 100 a day per adult as the poverty line compared to the present poverty line of just Rs 11. According to this estimate, around 75 to 80 per cent of the population would have to be considered poor. Earlier, enquiring into the conditions of workers in the unorganised sector, the Sengupta commission had assessed that 77 per cent of the population had a spending capacity of less than Rs 20 a day. Many state governments have their own assessments on the basis of criteria for deciding poverty such as community basis of including scheduled castes and tribes, widows, disabled persons or professions like fisherpersons etc, to be given BPL cards.

Acceptance of the Tendulkar report may at best provide a fig leaf for the ruling party to parade as an achievement of their president the 10 per cent increase in the number of officially recognised rural poor. But in reality, as explained above, it will mean a reduction in the present numbers recognised and given subsidised rations by various state governments.




What does the present draft have for Antodaya card holders? The bill makes no mention at all of them and their rights to further subsidies.

Thus not only do APL card holders get eliminated in this draft bill, not only do the numbers of BPL get reduced from the actual numbers even if the flawed Tendulkar committee report is accepted, but the special subsidies to the poorest sections will also get eliminated.

The bill is limited only to foodgrains. We have been demanding inclusion of other essential items such as pulses, oil, sugar. The sugar scandal of high prices benefiting the corporates shows the relevance of this demand.

Clearly in a country where a vast number of the people are in the unorganised sector with fluctuating incomes, it is only a universalised system which can ensure food security. If this is accepted, it will still cost less than two per cent of the GDP. As the government can in one single year forego taxes to the tune of Rs five lakh crore, of which over Rs 80,000 crore are concessions for the corporates, the argument of lack of resources for a universal PDS is unconvincing.




Under section 3(2), BPL families will be entitled to 25 kg of grains a month. At present each BPL family or Antodaya family is eligible to 35 kg per month. A BPL family has to pay (approximately) Rs 5 a kilo of rice or Rs 175 for its full current entitlement. If the present bill is implemented, a BPL family would have to make up the reduced allocation of 10 kg by buying it from the market. Given the high food prices, it would have to pay at least Rs 20 a kg, i.e. an expenditure of Rs 200 for 10 kg. The 25 kg at Rs 3 would cost Rs 75. Thus in total, the expenditure after the �Food Security� legislation is implemented would be at least Rs 100 more for 35 kg of rice for a BPL family.

For an Antodaya family the increased expenditure would be Rs 200 more since the existing entitlement is 35 kg of rice at Rs 3 per kg. If it is calculated as wheat entitlement, however, the expenditure would be even more since the price at present is Rs 2 per kg as compared to Rs 3 proposed by the Congress manifesto.

The present draft makes no mention of the price. Clause 3(2) states that price will be fixed �from time to time in a manner as may be provided under the rules.� It is known that the price is to be put at Rs 3 a kg as stated in the presidential address. However, since the price has been deliberately kept out of the main act, the government reserves the right to hike the price when it wants, which will not require an amendment to the law.

What is required at the very minimum is that the present allocation of 35 kg should continue and the price of the foodgrain offered should be pegged at Rs 2 a kg.




There are different versions of the bill; one of them includes several clauses relating to cash transfers to the states in lieu of foodgrains. This proposal of cash transfer is objectionable and will mean putting consumers at the mercy of the market at a time when food inflation is extraordinarily high. Nor is there any guarantee that the cash transfer will be linked to market prices. Without such a guarantee, it would mean depriving people of the full subsidy. Cash transfers will weaken food security because, given the desperate requirements of a family at any given time, the cash so transferred may be spent on other urgent requirements. In addition, cash transfers in a patriarchal society with differentiated access within the home tend to deny women equal rights, as the males may decide the use of the cash.

The central government also wants to keep the right to replace supply of foodgrains �when not available� with �compensation,� meaning thereby a certain amount of money to state governments. This loophole will enable the centre to escape its legal duty to guarantee the required foodgrains every month to the states. Through this clause, it can also shift part of the financial burden on to the states by giving low compensation not in tune with market prices.

These clauses must be strongly opposed.

The present draft is highly overcentralised, almost like a colonial power dictating to its subjects. For example, clause 18 states, �The central government may give such directions, as it may consider necessary, to the state governments for the effective implementation of the act. It shall be mandatory for the state governments to comply with such directions.� There are also clauses which �direct� the state governments to provide storage space for foodgrains and so on, without of course taking any responsibility for the finances. Clearly, such an approach which violates the constitutional rights of states cannot be accepted.

The legal guarantee of food subsidies gets translated into the right of an eligible family deprived of the amount of foodgrains due to it, to a food security allowance to be paid by the state government. On the lines of the REGA unemployment allowance, the state government is held responsible for denial of foodgrains once the central government has fulfilled its part of the provision of foodgrains. This is an important clause which needs strengthening. At present, once again, there is no mention of how the amount of the compensation is to be decided. Thus the �food security allowance,� if not linked to the market prices of a particular grain which has been denied to the eligible beneficiary, will not be a guarantee of food security.

In earlier legislations like NREGA and the Forest Rights Act enacted by the previous UPA government, only the interventions of the CPI(M) and other Left parties protected the rights of the people and the official drafts, which could have been disastrous, were radically changed. Today those the Congress is dependent on appear to be complicit in this mockery being made of food security.

It is necessary to take these issues to the people and force the government to replace the present draft with one that ensures the basic requirements of food security.