The Constitution of India under the ambit of Article 47 provides for measures to raise the level of nutrition and the standard of living and to improve public health of its people. The Indian National Food Security Bill, 2013 (also Right to Food Bill), was introduced in the Parliament in December, 2012 and was passed only in late August, 2013, after initially being propagated as a presidential ordinance. Amidst high levels of debates and controversies, it was signed into law on September 12, 2013 to become the National Food Security Act, 2013. This post will attempt to highlight certain aspects of the recent debate that finally resulted into the formation of this law and then suggest some instruments via which the Act can prove to be more effective.
The Act is often submitted to be the largest ever experiment in the world for distributing highly subsidized food by any government through an approach that aims to qualify the same as a ‘right’ of the beneficiary. According to the same, availability of adequate quantities of food grains at affordable prices at the individual level is what is meant by having ‘food security’. The projected legislation aims to provide subsidized food grains to about two thirds of the population of India, under a scheme known as the Targeted Public Distribution System. It aims to tackle the issue of food security through a rights based approach, which is distinctly different from the previously practiced welfare approach of ensuring food safety. The assumption is that if the Constitution of a country enshrines the right to food, it would prove to be an excellent starting point for introducing a national framework law on the right to food, which would guide a political and legislative process towards the complete realization of this constitutional right.
The Constitution of India classifies raising the level of nutrition as a Directive Principle of State Policy rather than a fundamental right of a person. There are few countries in the world where the right to food is fully justiciable, which means that violations of the right to food can be recognized by a judicial or quasi-judicial body and remedial measures can be opted to check the same without contravening in the matters of the government. India is one such country. The most widely studied case depicting judicial intervention in the matters of right to food is People’s Union for Civil Liberties v Union of India. A Public Interest Litigation was filed wherein it was alleged that over fifty million tons of food grains were lying unutilized with the Food Corporation of India, especially in drought affected areas where people were dying of pervasive starvation. The Court also did not feel obliged to order the distribution of these idle stocks of food despite their massive availability. With regard to the complaints, the Court issued interim orders under which the previously government-run food programs came under the ambit of legal entitlements for the population, making it obligatory upon the national courts to acknowledge the justiciability of this commitment.
Whilst the objective of the Act has been applauded by most, there are heavy criticisms regarding the implementation and purpose of the same. These criticisms hover mostly around the financial aspects of the Act. Firstly, the National Food Security Act gives immense importance and reliance to the already existing institutions which have a proven history of ineffectiveness. The current ‘leaky’ Public Distribution System has been repeatedly given a sense of meaning despite its established loopholes in terms of effective implementation of the programs.
Secondly, the Central government has restricted its accountability to procuring of the grains and delivering them to the State government for distribution through the Public Distribution System. The State government is loaded with the task of not just collecting these food grains from the Food Corporation of India but also ensuring that the legal entitlements are enforced amongst the beneficiaries. If the Centre cannot provide food grains directly to the State through its Centre Pool, it is supposed to provide, according to its own discretion, funds to the extent of short supply of food grains to them. And in case the State fails to provide some beneficiaries with the legal entitlements, it is supposed to pay a “Food Security Allowance” to those remaining beneficiaries. This seems erroneous because the State will not be able to provide the allowance if its financial structure is undeveloped in the first instance due to insufficient supply from the Centre.
Thirdly, the feasibility of the Act is under scrutiny because it is estimated that the government will find it tediously difficult to contain spending money in the prescribed limited budget even in 2013-2014, let alone further. It is said that the government’s estimate of their budget is overly optimistic and not at all realistic, for it does not take into account the additional expenditure that would be required for administrative set-ups, large-scale production and outlay for storage, processing and infrastructure. The unsystematic outflow will essentially mean a much higher expenditure for the government than expected and an imbalanced fiscal deficit.
In my opinion, only with enforceable justice, dependent establishments and a legal system aiming towards a quintessential implementation of right to food can duty-bearers be answerable for assuring food security. Checking for corruption at every step of implementation of this right is indeed one of the only ways that can bring about the desired outcome of food availability and security as opposed to various previous attempts. The livelihood of a person is directly affected by his/her work conditions and affects directly the capacity to purchase and obtain food grains. Hence, apart from only the financial condition, the social situation of a person is a clear indicator that an effort to improve the general living conditions of majority population in India should be of prime importance. An essential question that arises is whether the issue of national food security must be incorporated within the Constitution of India as a fundamental right. However, passing of the bill to form an Act, for now, must prove to be a major step forward in reaching the aimed ideals. It is worthy to note that the issue of food security is more about composition of food in changing consumption patterns than the availability of food grains, which is never in shortage in our country. Limiting legal food entitlements would be a constitutional outrage, and as a measure for betterment, diversifying demand patterns must be appreciated for holistic approach so as to achieve food and nutritional safety. The role of the Food Corporation of India needs to be restructured and narrowed down to managing buffer stocks and welfare agendas, price stabilization and imports and exports, alongside market intervention. The private sector participation may also help in terms of associating, funding and employing resources in order to progress and facilitate equitable distribution in the supply chain of procurement to the final delivery. In light of the aforementioned aspects, all the remaining factors related to the debate regarding the Food Security Act must be considered in national interest in order to get the maximum out of this recently adopted law.
This post has been authored by Saasha Malpani, a second year student at the West Bengal National University Juridical Sciences and a member of the NUJS Constitutional Law Society.