Making progress on food security in India

As the debate on the national Indian Food Security Bill reaches parliament, Oxfam India Program Officer Rebecca S. David outlines the benefits of such policies in one state in Central India.

At a public hearing organized by Oxfam and the State Right to Food Network Sonkali, a widowed mother and landless labourer, told people how she lost her only sense of security – a ration card entitling her to food subsidies through the state government’s Public Distribution System (PDS).

She was one of thousands of vulnerable people across the state of Chattisgarh who were on the brink of starvation because their rations had been stopped. Even though Chattisgarh’s food program was considered one of the best in the country, a drive to sift out bogus cards had been poorly implemented, resulting in people’s cards being wrongly cancelled. 

The good news for Sonkali was that, following a vibrant campaign by the Right to Food Network, the State government introduced its ground-breaking ‘Food Security Act’ on December 21, 2012. The act entitles all vulnerable people to a supply of grains, pulses, oils and salt at highly subsidized prices. It also ensures vulnerable people such as pregnant and breastfeeding mothers and young children have access to free meals, and includes special provisions for households headed by widows, the disabled and the terminally ill. The system is means-tested so that people who earn enough to pay income tax and own more than a certain amount of land are exempt.

This state act was ground-breaking in more ways than one. In a win for women’s rights, ration cards will now be issued in the name of the eldest adult woman in every eligible family. The delivery of this mammoth programme is managed through a central computerized system which has significantly helped in reducing the amount of food rations lost to corruption and theft. Around six per cent of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of the State will be committed for the implementation of the Act. This is in stark contrast to national expenditure on food subsidies which amounted to just 0.74 per cent of GDP in 2012-13. Chattisgarh’s act will also provide food subsidies to 90 per cent of its population, while a national food security bill approved by the Indian Cabinet will cover only 67 per cent of the population.

Of course, Chattisgarh’s food security act is not a panacea to all its problems. For example, nearly half of the population in Chattisgarh rely on forests for food and their livelihood which are under threat from mining and industrialisation. For the last two years, Oxfam India has been lobbying on an important legislation that would give people like Sonkali rights to their natural resources.

While many things need to be done to ensure food security in the state, this act is an important milestone. It provides valuable policy lessons for the rest of the country as we debate a similar food security bill at the national level.

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