The Good and Bad of the Food Security Bill

The Cabinet recently passed the food security bill. But does it only make politically correct noises?

Published: Apr 27, 2013 06:28:23 AM IST
Updated: Apr 26, 2013 05:07:31 PM IST
The Good and Bad of the Food Security Bill
Image: Jayanta Dey / Reuters
The prolonged battle for the right to food had forced the Supreme Court to ensure universalisation of welfare schemes like mid-day meals for schoolkids

The Food Security Bill (FSB), which had been in the works since UPA took office for the second time in 2009, finally received the nod from the cabinet in March. But, contrary to expectations, it was panned by many sections of the press. An editorial in The Indian Express implied that the bill had a fundamental flaw, while the one in Mint explained why it will not work. The bill received adverse reactions from the aam admi too, as was evident by the comments readers of the Financial Press left on the website.

But the FSB is not an idea that the government came up with overnight. It’s been debated over several years and across several platforms. Then why is India’s biggest social welfare policy measure facing such flak?  

The right to food campaign started when the Rajasthan unit of the People’s Union for Civil Liberties filed a writ petition in the Supreme Court in April 2001 demanding that the country’s food stocks be used to alleviate hunger and malnutrition. The prolonged battle between the PUCL and the Union of India led to many “interventions”, like instituting food commissioners, to ensure universalisation of welfare schemes like mid-day meals for schoolchildren.

The Good and Bad of the Food Security Bill
Meanwhile, the UPA’s first stint had achieved two very important results that propelled the right to food campaigners to push forward their agenda: The government had passed the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (now the MGNREGA) and ensured that India grew at over 9 percent for successive years. With the country riding at such a high, the activists had asked the UPA a simple question when it took over the second time in 2009: How can India be among the world’s fastest growing economies and yet have hunger and malnutrition levels worse than that of Sub-Saharan Africa?

It turned out to be a potent argument and, despite much dilly-dallying, the UPA approved the bill in March.

But by now, the argument had lost its edge primarily due to the sharp deceleration in India’s growth rate. From growing at an average of 9 percent between FY06 and FY11, India is huffing and puffing to even touch the 5 percent mark now. Slower growth has meant a steep fall in tax revenues.

The fiscal deficit is also a major concern and if India further slips on its promised 5.2 percent growth rate in FY14, the credit rating agencies could downgrade the country’s investment climate to “junk” status. If that happens, corporate India would find it harder, and costlier, to raise loans for investment.

“The government has passed it [the FSB] with great reluctance and obviously corporate India is not very happy,” says Biraj Patnaik, a senior campaigner for the right to food. Reason: The bill is likely to cost the government Rs 1.25 lakh crore each year. 

But this entire amount is not new expenditure for the government. India is already spending close to Rs 1.16 lakh crore on schemes that are listed as “entitlements” under the FSB. For instance, food subsidy (Rs 85,000 crore), mid-day meal (Rs 13,215 crore), Integrated Child Development Scheme (Rs 17,700 crore) and maternity entitlements (Rs 450 crore).

So, the additional expenditure is around Rs 8,635 crore, an increase of 0.09 percent of the GDP. But its impact on fiscal deficit is an old issue that had largely been overcome when the growth was good. Opposition against the FSB now came from different quarters.

Hunger vs Malnutrition
The new reason for disapproval stems from the different ways in which hunger and malnutrition are defined. Naysayers argue that eradication of malnutrition requires more than just removal of hunger. Simply providing for the basic minimum food is unlikely to do enough to improve India’s ignominious malnutrition levels. Food security is necessary but not sufficient for nutrition security.

“For nutrition, you need to focus on children and women. The FSB does take a step ahead in that direction, though it could have done more on those fronts,” says Reetika Khera, professor at IIT-Delhi.

The other area of concern is increased government involvement when it comes to procuring grains from the market. The fear is that the FSB will significantly raise the amount of foodgrain procured from the market and distort agriculture prices in the process. “The government procures just under one-third of the total production. The bulk of foodgrain trade is in the private sector and it will remain there. This is because the current allocation for the food schemes covered by the bill is about 56 MT [million tonne] of grain; this will increase to approximately 62 MT—an increase of just four MT,” says Khera.

Food Over Facts
Montek Singh Ahluwalia, deputy chairman of the Planning Commission, and considered as one of those unhappy with the entitlement mode adopted by the UPA, settled the debate while addressing students at IIT-Delhi recently. “This is no longer about facts. This is about a moral recognition that something is wrong. There is now a broad consensus (among policymakers) and that is new.”

[The FSB comes up for debate when the Budget session of the Parliament is re-convened on April 22.]

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(This story appears in the 03 May, 2013 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)

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  • Barnali Deb

    I think FSB should be accepted as it is a stepping stone for our country to be malnourished free and a healthy one. No doubt there will be some people disagreeing 2 it at first.

    on Dec 26, 2015
  • Nilanjan Gogoi

    yes,food security bill will have a hunger free India.

    on Feb 11, 2014
  • Arun Arora

    It's(FSB) slogan says food for all, it is an act of social welfare. But its proper implemetation is a difficult task, it may lead to corruption. It can still prove to be a boon if implemented properly

    on Jan 8, 2014
  • Kirtilohar

    ya,its good for country but not for citizens,becoz we don,t have proper food to give,no proper technology, no perfect control, most of people facing many problems like poverty, low food, and most important problem which is corruption.

    on Sep 24, 2013
    • Mulla

      mk gandhi said b the change dat u want...aap bhrastachar ni karenge to kaha se hoga

      on Sep 28, 2013
  • Ajaz Ahmad Ganaie

    it is a new trend for black marketing in pds system .implementation of this type of work is very difficult for india govt.

    on Aug 29, 2013
  • Devendra Singh

    Implementation of this type of procedings suffer in india due to corruption !so for success of food srcurity bill requires monthly report to be submitted by head of district administrators periodicaly

    on Aug 27, 2013
  • Jakkireddy Rajiv Reddy

    good and analysed prospection

    on Aug 17, 2013
  • Amar

    Ya surely the things are going in a positive way but there are lot of constraint in proper implementation of policy the conventional way of providing stuff is totally currupt and still the policymakers relying on it......

    on Jun 1, 2013
  • Killgod

    .....Food Security bill will create corruption!!

    on May 25, 2013
  • Kunal Mathur

    Lipton defined ultra-poverty as receiving less than 80 percent of minimum caloric intake whilst spending more than 80% of income on food. Alternatively a 2007 report issued by International Food Policy Research Institute defined ultra-poverty as living on less than 54 cents per day. India not only has people who do not get enough food but also an overwhelming number of undernourished children.About 50 per cent of all childhood deaths are attributed to malnutrition as per UNICEF India\'s website. Experts have rightly pointed the tendency of farmers to prioritize Wheat and Rice after the implementation of the bill. This can lead to a terrifying upsurge in malnutrition deaths. Yes we need a security bill. But has this bill been cursory?

    on May 23, 2013
  • Sri Ram

    When can we have a drinking water Security bill

    on May 20, 2013
  • Rupesh Kumar Jain


    on May 16, 2013
  • Prathamesh

    Don\'t you think this bill will increase the number of lazy people in India. Eligible people for this bill is BPL, most unemployed. If they get food for free or such a less price. They will not bother to study or educate themselves or get some job and improve their lifestyle. This will also give rise to slums in urban cities like Mumbai, Delhi, etc. Politicians will never remove slums for vote and people will not move from slums as they are happy as they are getting basic needs in city of mumbai without doing anything. I think this Bill should never get passed or it should have some very strict policies.

    on May 15, 2013