When I got to know about the plan of the current government to pass the Right to Food Act, I went through a series of feelings. First it was dismay, followed by optimism, further followed by despair. For the first few minutes, I kept wondering why did it take so much time to provide the most basic and fundamental right to the citizens of this country? It is not that we have become self sufficient with respect to food only recently; on the contrary, we as a nation have secured food sufficiency since decades, but still allowed food grains to decay in our godowns, and not let them reach those who have been starving to death! Anyway, considering that it is better late than never, I felt that finally the common man and his poorer cousins were getting more attention from the government, which had been too engrossed in trying to save India Inc. from recession. I felt happy because this particular bill becomes even more pertinent at this point in time as the prices of food grains and cereals in the last one year have risen to such an extent that many items have become nearly out of reach of the common man. Needless to say, nothing much has been done to change much of that, as a result of which the middlemen and hoarders are making obscene margins at the cost of both farmers and the consumers.

Thus, from that perspective, the very concept of the Right to Food Act gives the fundamental right to every citizen to get safe and nutritious food, consistent with an adequate diet, necessary to lead an active and healthy life with dignity! But then, there are many glitches in the draft bill – to begin with, the fact that the quantum of food-grains has been fixed in the draft at 25kg per month, against an earlier Supreme Court directive of 35kg. Along with this, there is a huge gap between the Center and the states with respect to the number of people below the poverty line. The Center has budgeted the bill assuming 6.75 crores people below poverty line, whereas the states have already issued over 10 crore BPL cards. Not to forget, the assumptions for both the states and the Center are far from reality, as the basic paradigm of defining poverty remains questionable in itself in the Indian context! In addition to this, the introduction of the bill also highlights the failure of various government programs which were targeted at giving food security to the underprivileged! A case in point is the Antyodaya Anna Yojana (AAY), which was meant to provide subsidized food to the destitute, primitive tribes, disabled and old. Interestingly the bill is now attempting to scrap AAY and reduce the guarantee of rice to 25kg, which was 35 kgs in the case of the former, making the recipients worse off.

Along with all these gaps, the biggest gap that remains wide open is with respect to implementation of the bill, as that largely remains in the hands of the state government. It is no secret that the existing Public Distribution System has been a complete disaster! Every year, the government spends thousands of crores to procure food grains from the farmers of Punjab, Haryana and Western UP; and yet, what we witness is that blatant corruption has been perpetually robbing food from the mouths of the poor. Thus, the question that remains unanswered is that when the PDS system itself has collapsed, what guarantee does the Right to Food Act give that it would be able to solve the problem of lack of unavailability of decent and nutritious food to the masses at large? Secondly, what guarantees are there that the Act would not become just another fancied policy of the Central government, for which politicians would spare no opportunity to claim credit, even when the ground reality continues to be grim and frustrating? It was only a few years ago that the NREGA program was launched with much fanfare, and then onwards every year the allocation for the program not only has been consistently increasing, but it is also a fact that it has been extended to all the districts of India. And if reports are to be believed, then at the grass-roots level, NREGA has not been able to deliver upon its promises. It has not just failed in creating the required infrastructure in villages but has also failed in terms of creating productive engagements for the people of rural India. In most cases, corruption has been rampant and a majority of the allocated funds have been eaten away by the bureaucracy and middlemen. Thus, NREGA’s failure can also be gauged from the fact that the Right to Food Act has become imperative to give nutritious food to the poorest – because the former has failed to provide the required amount of guaranteed earning, which could have ensured the regular purchase of basic food items. In fact, one also needs to give a relook to the Right to Food Act from the standpoint that it is being promulgated for giving food security to all the poorest of Indians, who ironically are engaged in the very production of agricultural commodities – as a majority of the poorest of Indians are engaged in subsistence farming. This is shocking because it shows the sheer anomaly in the market – where the ones who actually produce the food grains cannot themselves avail of the same from the market!

All in all, most of these new laws are more like old wine in new bottle. On paper, they indeed look nice and promising, but had the existing schemes been implemented in a foolproof manner from day one, one would not have required laws to provide the masses the exercise of their own rights.

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