THE NATIONAL FOOD SECURITY ACT, 2013 AND ITS IMPLICATIONS IN THE COVID-19 PANDEMIC, BY ANURAG MOHAN BHATNAGAR AND KUMAR SATYAM

Introduction

As the 15th Lok Sabha was close to its end of tenure, there was an important legislation was listed in the discussion forum of the Parliament House which was going to prove to be a major amelioration as far as food security is concerned. “On 1 January, 1942 India signed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in the year 1966, it is imperative to note that both of these conventions mandates upon their signatories to ensure the right to adequate food to their citizens respectively”. Furthermore, it is also mentioned in the Article 47 of the Constitution of India (Part IV) that it is the duty of the state to raise the level of nutrition and standard of living of its people, and improve public health.

The Supreme Court has also ruled in a landmark case that “Right to live guarantee in any civilized society implies the right to food”. The PUCL also filed a petition in 2001, with a contention that, Article 21 must also include Right to Food within its ambit. It was after this petition that, certain central schemes like, the PDS, TDPS, Mid-Day Meal Scheme, Antyodaya Anna Yojana, etc. were launched centrally.

The National Advisory Council in the year 2010 prepared a rough draft of the National Food Security Bill, which proposed that almost three-fourth of the country’s population must be entitled to essential food legally. In early 2011, an expert committee was set up which thoroughly examined the bill and made a few recommendations. “Later, Ministry of Consumer Affairs, Food, and the Public Distribution released the bill in a public domain and finally, presented before the parliament in December 2011”.

Important Features of the Bill

The Food Security Bill was introduced in the Lok Sabha on 22 December, 2011 by the Minister for Food, Consumer Affairs and Public distribution. The bill was later referred to the standing committee whose then chairman was, Mr. Vilas Baburao Muttemwar. The main aim of the bill was to make right to food as a statutory right.

The key features of the bill are as follows:

  • 50% of the Urban Population and 75% of the Rural Population shall be sanctioned food through the Public Distribution. “In addition to this, the most popular mechanism followed by the bill is to allow transfers through cash and food coupons as far as the distribution of grains are concerned”. When the act was introduced, one of the provisions was to provide the poor of this country with 35 Kg of cereal at a subsidized price of Rs. 3/- Kg. Furthermore, “7 Kg of food grains shall be provided to every person at subsidized rates such as, Rs. 3/- per Kg for rice, Rs. 2/- per Kg for wheat and Rs. 1/- per Kg for other food grains throughout the year”.
  • “The percentage of people shall be identified by the Central Government which will further separate them into two groups namely, priority group and general group additionally; the particular State Government concerned will try to look into the households which shall be in either of the two groups”.
  • The bill has also identified certain group of people which shall be legally entitled to the essential items, these are, lactating mothers, pregnant ladies, malnourished children, children who are of the age, 6 months to 14 years, destitute, homeless, and victims of any disaster.
Contemporary Developments realted to COVID-19

In November 2017, MP Shri Jagdambika Pal has introduced The National Food Security (Amendment) Bill, 2018 to amend the National Food Security Act, of 2013. Due to intrinsic shortcomings of the Act, the bill was passed to ensure:

  • that beneficiaries are able to choose the food grains that they consume
  • that hot cooked meals are provided to pregnant and nursing women and to young children
  • food security to all persons at all times including and especially in cases of natural calamities.

“Recently, the Department of Food Distribution has announced that the government will supply over next three months additional 2 kg subsidised food grains under the PDS, taking the total monthly quota to 7 kg per person to over 80 crore people registered under the Public Distribution System (PDS) amid nationwide lockdown due to COVID-19 pandemic”. The Union minister Ram Vilas Paswan has said that the NFS Act is supposed to cover 71 crore people across the country. However, 39 lakh of these 71 crore people are not receiving benefits as they do not have ration cards.

The Union Government has appointed a panel to review the National Food Security Act, 2013 to make it applicable only to “deserving sections”. It has suggested that to implement the model Agriculture Produce and Livestock Marketing (Promotion and Facilitation) Act, 2017 [APLM Act, 2017] in States. The APLM Act aims to remodel the existing legal framework related to the marketing of agriculture products. Also, the Economic Survey 2019-20 has also suggested that the rates of food grains under the NFS Act need revision and coverage. The rate has not been revised since the enactment of the Act which results in mushrooming food subsidy.

Challenges and Concerns

1.      Leakages in the Public Distribution System

Leakages mean the food grains which do not get distributed to the intended beneficiaries. As per the 2011 data, the leakages of PDS were reported to be 46.7 %”. “In 2016, the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) found that states had not completed the process of naming beneficiaries, and 49% of beneficiaries had not yet been named. Errors of inclusion and exclusion in the beneficiary lists were also found”.

2.      Storage

As reported in 2016-17, India has the total storage capacity of 788 lakh tonnes. Out of which, 354 lakh tonnes is with the Food Corporation of India (FCI) and 424 lakh tonnes is with the state agencies. “In the audit report, the CAG found that the available storage potential in the States was inadequate for the allocated quantity of food grains”.

3.      Quality of Food Grains

It has been noted that some people submitted their grievance about getting low quality food-grains that was combined with many other grains to make it edible. Additionally, there were also concerns about people getting food grains which had pebbles. Poor food quality might affect people’s ability to purchase food from fair price shops.

4.      Rural Infrastructure

Rural infrastructure is one of the major concerns, which has been significantly ignored. Mismanagement in stocking food grains has led to increase in price. It creates an adverse impact on the vulnerable sections of the society as they are the most affected ones. Due to such callous approach, food grains get perished and results in escalating the problem. Illegal diversion of food grains, corruption and inefficiency are the major challenges that need to be monitored seriously.

Case Laws

In the case of Swaraj Abhiyan (v) v Union of India, the division bench of the Supreme Court stated that “National Food Security Act, 2013, which is a social justice and social welfare legislation, is not being implemented as it should be”. Justice N.V. Ramana said that it is not proper on the part of the States to ignore the plight of the common man in enforcing such important legislations, more so when such legislation is welfare legislation. The Act elaborates on the nature of federalism as a functional arrangement for co-operative action and a combined effort, both by Center and States, needs to be taken for effective implementation of the Act.

In the case of RK Premjit Singh v State of Manipur, the Manipur HC issued a writ of Mandamus to respondents to (a) put an end to the misuse, misappropriation and mismanagement of essential commodities/items sanctioned for the beneficiaries under NFS Act, 2013 and (b) fix responsibility for the illegal and irregular practice of misappropriation of public money and take corrective actions against the erring officials or otherwise as per law.

Due to the distress caused by the on-going lockdown, the High Court of Delhi has instructed the Delhi State Government to ensure that all ration shops to remain open and distribute food grains through PDS in accordance with the policy in the case of Delhi Rozi-Roti Adhikar Abhiyan v UOI.

Conclusion and Suggestions

As per the research we have come to the conclusion that as far as the implementation of the bill is concerned, it has many challenges to face up the road. These challenges, as discussed in the article, include lack of storage, low quality of food-grains, and lack of proper and sufficient infrastructure. However, if we were to suggest ways in order to enhance the system, especially in this period of time during a pandemic, those would have been, more usage of E-technology and the ICT through which end-to-end computerization could limit large-scale diversion of food-grains into the open market and help delivery of food grains to the respective beneficiaries. Another way could be Direct Benefit Transfer (DBT) through which, all the beneficiaries (especially poor people) shall get a certain amount directly in their bank accounts and can be used to get grains from the open market. Thus, to conclude, the way in which the bill functions has some loopholes and is required to be corrected.

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