Home > Archives (2006 on) > 2013 > Legislation Ensuring Basic Right to Food

Mainstream, VOL LI, No 37, August 31, 2013

Legislation Ensuring Basic Right to Food

Monday 2 September 2013

by Suranjita Ray

A Historic Initiative

The National Food Security Bill (NFSB), 2013, passed after a long debate in the Lok Sabha, and after a longer wait, is indeed a historic initiative to make the state responsible to ensure food security to 67 per cent of its population. Providing the citizens legal entitlement to food is a positive intervention of the present United Progressive Alliance (UPA) Government, which has privileged the rights-based approach that has guaranteed a series of rights during the last decade such as the Right to Information Act, 2005; Right to Work, 2005 through the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA); Forest Rights Act, 2006; Right to Education, 2008; and now the most important Right to Food, 2013. The flagship measure is certainly a ‘big message’ to the global world as it promises to ‘wipe out hunger and malnutrition’ from the country (speech by Sonia Gandhi in the 15th Lok Sabha). Though it is only the beginning and much needs to be worked out to plug the loopholes in the Bill alongside its implementation to ensure that its benefits reach the right people in the right manner, it is certainly a landmark beginning.

Ever since the Food Availability Decline (FAD) theory1 has been discredited by the Entitlement Theory of Amartya Sen,2 food security has moved beyond production to three main components of food—its availability, distribution and access. (Also see Radhakrishna 2001: 103) Though the food security approach provided a broader range of policies than those implicit in Sen’s entitlement approach: from economic liberalisation and agricultural growth to buffer stocks, food aid and emergency relief, the focus on technical recommendations was a deliberate attempt to keep the debate on prevention of hunger and famine in the non-political arena of public policy in the national and international fora. However, persistent hunger and starvation amidst overflowing granaries and buffer stocks brought the issue of deprivation and its accompanying humanitarian crisis to the forefront of public attention. It has not only raised serious questions about the agrarian policies in relation to production, procurement, preservation and distribution, but has also demanded ‘Right to Food’ as a basic right of the citizens. Thus the Right to Food Campaign (RTFC) argued for a comprehensive “Food Entitlements Act”.

The NFSB (promulgated as an Ordinance in July 2013), which has been in the making for the last four years (announced on June 4, 2009), is a historic initiative, and has been widely debated across the country raising critical issues regarding the right to nutrition, work, health, drinking water, sanitation, education, economic and social rights, that are vital to realise the right to food. (Reddy, 2010: 8; Ray, 2010: 18-20) While the “right to food” is still not a universal right in the NFSB 2013 that is passed, taking cognisance of some of the suggestions by the RTFC, public hearings, people’s rights forums, movements, organisations, groups and individual activists, and political parties, the National Advisory Council (NAC) and the UPA Government came to a consensus that the bill should relate to the larger issues of nutritional security and cover some of the existing schemes (though certain changes need to be incorporated to make the latter effective). (Ray, 2010:17-28; Khera, 2009:40-43) Most of the recommendations of the Standing Committee have been accepted by the government, which has assured that several measures would also be taken to improve the Targeted Public Distribution System (TPDS), and Integrated Child Development Schemes (ICDS). (Kumar and Dhar, 2013: 1,10: Dhar, 2013: 10)

The Bill is an important step when half of India’s children suffer from under-nutrition and are stunted. India is home to 61 million stunted children below five and has the highest (38 per cent) of all stunted children in the world. (UNICEF Report 2013) And a majority of women is anaemic and deprived of pre- and post-natal care. Despite higher economic growth during the last decade and steeping reduction in poverty in 2011-12, India ranks low in several social indicators such as life expectancy at birth, Infant Mortality Rate (IMR), Maternal Mortality Rate (MMR), and Reproductive Health Index (RHI). The IMR is still as high as 46.07 per cent (2012). Over 400,000 new born die within the first 24 hours of their birth every year which is the highest anywhere in the world. (Save the Children 2013) While a few States such as Kerala, Tamil Nadu, and Maharashtra have achieved the MMR target of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) of 200 maternal deaths per one lakh of live births, the majority of the States lag far behind. Therefore, it is difficult to reduce hunger by half by 2015 as aimed by the MDGs.

Thus, the NSFB 2013 is significant as it will entitle two-thirds of our 1.2 billion population to subsidised foodgrains under the TPDS. Besides enhancing the minimum foodgrain intake at a subsidised price, nutrition programmes for pre-school children through local anganwadis and Mid-Day Meals (MDM) for school children, maternal nutrition programmes for pregnant and nursing mothers, other maternity benefits, provisions for advancing food security such as agrarian reforms including research and development to enhance foodgrain production, public distribution reforms, decentralised procurement, storage and transportation of foodgrains, safe and adequate drinking water, sanitation, health care, and adequate pensions for senior citizens, persons with disability and single women, are also incorporated in the Bill.

A Few Promises and Concerns

However, the Bill is not a perfect piece of legislation and there are issues which need to be debated further. But it is significant that the Bill has been passed in the Lok Sabha though a few necessary amendments were important. Strategies need to be worked out to secure the right to food to the majority who are food-insecure. Several critics argue that the NSFB will lead to an additional expenditure which will increase India’s fiscal deficit under the present economic situation. It is important to note that despite a higher proportion of stunted children than nearly any other country, India spends half the proportion of the GDP that lower middle income Asian countries spend on social protection, and less than one-fifth of what high income countries in Asia spend. (Alkire, 2013: 11) The additional expenditure can be offset by cuts elsewhere and by reprioritising policies to secure such basic rights to the people. In fact, the UPA Government argued ‘to arrange the resources to implement food security’ which led to the passage of the Bill after much deliberation.

The Bill provides legal entitlement to subsidised foodgrains to a total of 67 per cent of the population. The total foodgrain requirement for the Bill is estimated to be around 62 million tonnes and 75 per cent of the villages will be targeted as the priority sector. The ‘Priority’ households (entitled to five kg per capita per month through the TPDS) and ‘antyodaya’ (poorest of the poor) households (entitled to 35 kg per household per month under the Antyodaya Anna Yojana) will combine as ‘eligible households’ which extend up to 75 per cent of the rural and 50 per cent of the urban population. The identification of eligible households is left to the State governments, subject to the guidelines of the scheme for antyodaya households, and is subject to the guidelines to be ‘specified’ by the State governments for priority households based on the parameters prescribed by the Union Government. For the purpose of issuing ration cards, the eldest women in the household (not less than 18 years) shall be considered as head of the household. The subsidised price of Rs 3/2/1 for rice/wheat/millet (called coarse grains in the Bill) may be revised after three years. The PDS reforms include doorstep delivery of foodgrains, leveraging Aadhaar, a unique identification system (UID) for identifying beneficiaries of entitlement, transparency in the management of Fair Price Shops, and introducing schemes such as cash transfers, food coupons, or other schemes to the targeted beneficiaries in lieu of foodgrain entitlements, as prescribed by the Central Government.

Since making the Public Distribution System (PDS) a decentralised, non-targeted/ universal programme has been a major concern, several States oppose the Bill in its present form as it infringes on their rights. There is a danger of over-centralisation of the PDS under the Bill as it seeks to impose the ‘per capita entitlements’ (five kg per person per month) across the country as opposed to the existing ‘household entitlement’ (25 kg per month). Since the decentralised initiatives by the States have contributed to the revival of the PDS and an increase in the take-off in recent years (Dreze, 2010: 8 and 2013: 12; Dreze and Khera, 2011: 10; Khera, 2011: 4 and 2013: 11), the Bill has invited criticism demanding non-interference from the Centre in the States’ PDS. Tamil Nadu has a universal PDS and Chhattisgarh, Himachal Pradesh, Odisha, Rajasthan, Kerala, and Andhra Pradesh have moved towards a more inclusive system and have larger coverage of households. States that have moved towards universal PDS have done better in increasing off-takes and reducing leakages. (Karat, 2009: 10; Parsai, 2011b: 14)

Therefore, reviving universal PDS alongside major reforms to monitor its implementation is important. (Ray, 2011: 18) The Food Security Bill offers an opportunity to correct some of the errors in the PDS and end massive waste of public resources under the Above Poverty Line (APL) quota by abolishing it, as leakages in the APL quota are high in Bihar, Jharkhand, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat. (Dreze, 2013: 12) The Bill also provides that in case of non-supply of food grains, people will get Food Security Allowance. There are provisions for grievance redressal mechanism through the District Redressal Grievance Officer (DRGO) and Vigilance Committee and penalty for non-compliance of a public servant or authority. The State Food Commission will review and monitor the implementation of the Act. Mandatory transparency provisions include placing all PDS-related records under the public domain, conducting periodic social audit of the PDS and other welfare schemes.

What needs to be further discussed is the transition from ‘per household’ to ‘per capita’ entitlements. This will result in a cut on the present quota of 35 kg for families with less than seven members. While this might ensure that larger families get their fair share, which are only 10 per cent of the rural households (NSS 2009-10) (Khera, 2013: 11), it will end up punishing poor families with fewer children (Karat, 2011: 8) and the worst affected will be the single member households. (Dreze, 2013:12) This transition will encourage corrupt means to enrol fake household members to increase one’s entitlements. Linking the right to food with Aadhaar, based on biometrics information for proper targeting, might prevent such fraud, but studies show that the past experience of linking cash transfer schemes with Aadhaar has led to disruptions and people facing harassments. (Khera, 2013: 11) ‘Cash transfers’ to the targeted beneficiaries in tune with the recommendations made by the World Bank have been criticised in times of rising inflation. It would pave the way for the entry of organised retail into the country. Cash transfers “would put people at the mercy of food retailers and cartels which could lead to greater corruption than the projected leakages in the PDS apart from putting the farmers at risk”. (Parsai, 2011a: 15; see also open letter by RTFC to the Prime Minister 2011) Therefore giving primacy to cash transfers in lieu of foodgrain entitlements are issues that need to be discussed and debated.

The RTFC suggests universal PDS and demands that price protection should be for at least a decade and not just three years as proposed. Though the NFSB has been passed in the Lower House, various political parties, such as the Janata Dal (United), Samajwadi Party (SP), Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Communist Party of India (CPI), CPI-Marxist, Trinamul Congress (TMC), Biju Janata Dal (BJD), Akali Dal, All-India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) and DMK, demanded that the Bill should incorporate useful amendments. The demands range from imposing subsidised prices for a period of 10 years at which rice, wheat, and coarse cereals will be sold to annual upgradation of identified beneficiaries. (Parsai, 2013b:1) The common demands in the amendments tabled by the major Opposition parties are a big ‘no’ to cash transfers, food coupons, cash allowances in lieu of foodgrains, universal PDS, and inclusion of pulses and cooking oil in the basket. (Ibid.) Many have pointed out that the issue of the farmer’s income has not been addressed.

Making the allegation that the Bill is to be used for electoral gains, the SP criticised the Bill as anti-farmer as there is no guarantee in the provisions that all the produce would be bought by the government. The BSP demanded 100 per cent coverage for the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. The JD (U) is apprehensive that the Bill will pass the burden on to the States. The BJP demanded that the Maximum Support Price to the farmers should be 50 per cent higher than the average cost of production. It also wants the Bill to provide coverage to all the priority households, removal of ready-to-eat meals, and maternal benefit to extend to every woman, from those employed in the government to the homeless and destitute. The AIADMK expressed reservations about the Bill and demanded certain changes as the NFSB will hamper the universal PDS in Tamil Nadu by causing a deficit of one lakh tonnes of rice. The DMK also demands that the quantum of foodgrain allocation to the States be maintained (the government has assured that foodgrain supplies would not be reduced with the implementation of the Bill). The CPI-M demands that the two-child norm clause should be deleted from the provision of maternity benefits to pregnant and lactating mothers, and has sought a hike in entitlements to seven kg per person per month and a daily free meal for the destitute.

As per the Planning Commission’s poverty estimate 2011-12, about 17 States and Union Territories (most populous), will gain in ratio of the population that will be eligible for legal entitlement to foodgrains under the Bill, and 18 States (such as Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Delhi, Uttarakhand, and some North-Eastern States) will stand to lose. (Parsai, 2013a:1) It was important for the UPA Government to ensure that the States were sufficiently consulted (Reddy, 2013: 7) and the States should work hard to implement the Bill successfully. As the Bill is important, the real issues need to be addressed and it is critical that no political party uses it as an electoral card to win elections. Rather the Bill is an opportunity for any party to get popular support by working towards its implementation. (Varadarajan, 2013: 8)
Since the PDS needs to be viewed as part of the larger food policy, alongside its universalisation, decentralisation should also be given importance and panchayats should facilitate the purchase and storage of local foodgrains, and link it to distribution. The National Commission on Farmers (NCF) has made valid suggestions.3 The NFSB guarantees supplementary nutrition through anganwadis to children aged between six months to six years, take-home rations for children aged between six months to three years which should provide at least 500 calories and 12-15 grams of protein, meals to malnou-rished children through local anganwadis, promotion of exclusive breastfeeding for children below six months, and Mid-Day Meals to school-going children aged between six to 14 years. Every school serving MDM and anganwadi should have facilities for cooking food, drinking water and sanitation. Maternity entitlements such as free meal to every pregnant and lactating mother through the local anganwadi during pregnancy and six months after child birth, and monetary benefit of Rs 6000 is to be provided in instalments.

Though the nutritional planning could have been better in the Food Security Bill (Sen, 2013: 15), it is important to operationalise MDM as part of the larger Food Bill as it is a big relief to the undernourished children attending schools, despite several loopholes such as corruption and leakages, and poor quality and quantity of the gruel mixture of rice and dal. The recent tragedy in Chhapra, Bihar, which took the lives of 23 children after they had their Mid-Day Meal containing organophosphate pesticides, has raised pertinent issues about monitoring the implementation of the scheme and ensuring hygienic conditions (the Prime Minister in his speech on the 67th Independence Day celebrations assured that such incidents should not be repeated in future). Therefore, much remains to be done to wipe out malnutrition and hunger. Yet the NFSB 2013 has made the state more accountable and responsible to guarantee food as a basic right to its people.


Thus the Bill is a step in the right direction. But a greater challenge for policy-makers is to address the conditions which generate and perpetuate hunger and starvation for some sections of society irrespective of the levels of food production, availability, procurement, distribution, food prices, economic growth, and development. The actual command over food that different sections of the population can exercise depends on a set of social, cultural, economic, political, and legal factors, including those governing ownership, production and exchange. (Also see Sen, 1981: 26) An overall position in the existing class-caste structure, patriarchal system, feudal and semi-feudal agrarian relations is a major determinant factor in deciding who are the poor, and starved. While short-term relief strategies are important for those who are most food-insecure, long-term solutions to the problem of hunger call for food sovereignty which require structural changes that guarantee people the rights to food-producing resources, to define their own agricultural, labour and land policies which are ecologically, socially, economically, and culturally appropriate to their specific livelihood. It is critical to understand that hunger and under-nutrition are experiences that not only threaten lives but are also consequential effects of continuous failure to generate sufficient livelihood.

Therefore, the neoliberal policies of the state, which have prioritised economic reforms that promote export-oriented cash crop at the cost of food crops, corporate-driven production at the cost of need-based production, and Special Economic Zones (SEZs), have seriously under-mined food security during recent years. This has contributed to the agrarian crises and increasing number of farmers’ suicides across the country. The developmental state has consciously ignored redistribution of the basic productive resources. The economic development in general, and big development projects in particular, handed over vast areas of natural resources such as mining, fertile land, water, and forest reserves to the corporate sector and international finance capital to secure industrial and economic growth. This has resulted in increasing inequalities, deprivations, disentitlement, and alienation of the rights to productive resources such as land, forests and water, displacements, and disempowerment of the vast majority.

Though the legal right to food is important to generate the obligation of the state, or endorse popular action against an unresponsive administration as legitimate, such a law can only achieve its objective with structural changes. The major underlying causes of persisting malnutrition and hunger need to be addressed, and the NFSB 2013 is an important beginning of this journey to end hunger throughout the nation.

Alkire, Sabina (2013): “This Bill Won’t Eat Your Money” in The Hindu, July 29, p. 11.
Dhar, Aarti (2013): “Let’s Sink differences to Pass Historic Bill: Sonia” in The Hindu, August 27, p. 10.
Dreze, Jean (2010): “The Task of Making the PDS Work” in The Hindu, July 8, p. 8.
Dreze, Jean (2013): “From the Granary to the Plate” in The Hindu, August 1, p. 12.
Dreze, Jean and Reetika Khera (2011): “PDS Leakages: The Plot Thickens” in The Hindu, August 13, p. 10.
Karat, Brinda (2009): “For Inclusive Approach to Food Security” in The Hindu, June 30, p. 10.
Karat, Brinda (2011): “Food Security Bill Needs Amendments” in The Hindu, July 23, p. 8.
Khera, Reetika (2009): “Right to Food Act: Beyond Cheap Promises” in Economic and Political Weekly, (44) 29: 40-43.
Khera, Reetika (2011): “PDS: Signs of Revival” in The Hindu, June 12, p. 4 (Magazine).
Khera, Reetika (2013): “The Devil is in the Detail” in The Hindu, August 6, p. 11.
Kumar, Vinay and Aarti Dhar (2013), “LS Heeds Sonia’s Hunger Hatao Call, Passes Food Bill” in The Hindu, August 27, p. 1 and p. 10.
Malthus, Thomas (1798): An Essay on the Principle of Population, J. Johnson, London.
Parsai, Gargi (2011a): “Right to Food Campaign calls for ‘action’ against draft food Bill” in The Hindu, August 3, p. 15.
Parsai, Gargi (2011b): “Delink Food Entitlements from Poverty Line” in The Hindu, September 27, p. 14.
Parsai, Gargi (2013a): “Food Bill: Some States Lose, Some Gain” in The Hindu, August 16, p. 1.
Parsai, Gargi (2013b): “Big ‘no’ to Cash Tranfers under Food Security Bill” in The Hindu, August 18, p. 1.
Radhakrishna, R. (2001): “Food Security: Emerging Concerns” in S. Mahendra Dev, Piush Anthony V. Gayatri, R.P. Mamgain (ed.) Social and Economic Security in India (New Delhi: Institute for Human Development).
Ray, Suranjita (2010): “Right to Food: Some Issues and Challenges: A Case Study of Kalahandi” in Mainstream, 48 (9): 17-28.
Ray, Suranjita (2011): “Reviving Universal PDS: A Step Towards Food Security” in Mainstream, 49 (48).
Reddy, Rammanohar C. (2010): “Trivialising Food Security” in Economic and Political Weekly 45 (16): 7-8.
Reddy, Rammanohar C. (2013): “Case For Food Security Programme” in Economic and Political Weekly, 48 (30).
Save the Children (2013): “In India, Every Year 3,09,000 Babies Die On The First Day of Their Birth” http://www.savethechildren.in viewed on August 18, 2013.
Secretariat-Right to Food Campaign (2010): “Campaign Urges Supreme Court to Expand the PDS” 4 September 4, New Delhi and www.righttofoodindia.org viewed on September 10, 2010.
Sen, Amartya (1981): Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation (Delhi: Oxford University Press).
Sen, Amartya (2013): “Nutritional Planning could have Been better in Food Security Bill” in The Hindu, July 24, p. 15.
Swaminathan, M. S. (2010): “Pre–requisites for Sustainable Food Security” in The Hindu, July 20, p. 10.
UNICEF Report (2013): Improving Child Nutrition, United Nations Publications.
Varadarajan, Siddharth (2013): “Debate and Pass the Food Bill” in The Hindu, August 23, p. 8.


1. Thomas Malthus believed that hunger is caused due to Food Availability Decline and the world would be free from hunger only when food output grew as fast as or faster than the population. The Malthusian demography claimed to explain famine in terms of the framework of an arithmetical progression in food production and geometrical progression in population growth. (Malthus, 1798: xv and 26) Thus, famines were reduced to mathematical laws, which were beyond governmental control.

2. Amartya Sen views starvation as “the characteristics of some people not having enough food to eat and not the characteristics of there not being enough food to eat”. (Sen, 1981: 1) He argues that decline in the availability of food can be one of the possible causes of hunger, but it does not necessarily lead to hunger and one has to investigate how starvation is related to food supply. Sen states that there can be famine without ‘FAD’. In fact, a person’s capability to avoid under-nourishment may depend not merely on his or her intake of food, but also on the person’s access to productive assets, health care, medical facilities, drinking water sanitation, education and so on. (Dreze and Sen, 1989: 13-15)

3. The NCF recommends the spread of conservation and climate resilient farming and promotion of a conservation-cultivation-consumption-commerce chain in every block, which calls for technology and skill up-gradation of farming practices. Procurement of jowar, bajra, raggi, minor millets and pulses besides wheat and rice will develop a sustainable food grain system, and the Community Grain Banks (operating under Gram Sabhas) should facilitate the purchase and storage of local grain. Based on the principle of common but differentiated entitlements and keeping in mind needs of the underprivileged, M.S. Swami-nathan suggests that the food basket should include nutritious millets and salt fortified with iron and iodine, which will reduce chronic protein-en-iodine under-nutrition and hidden hunger caused by dietary deficiency of micro-nutrients such as iron, iodine, zinc, Vitamin A and B12. (Swaminathan, 2010: 10)

Suranjita Ray teaches Political Science at Daulat Ram College, University of Delhi. She can be contacted at suranjitaray_66@yahoo.co.in

ISSN : 0542-1462 / RNI No. : 7064/62 Privacy Policy Notice Addressed to Online Readers of Mainstream Weekly in view of European data privacy regulations (GDPR)