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Act Yes, Action No

Act Yes, Action No

India has been placed at the 97th position among 118 countries for combating hunger on the global hunger index 2016, despite the fact that it has two of the world’s largest child nutrition programmes – Integrated Child Development Scheme (ICDS) for children below 6 years and mid-day meal programme for school-going children till 14 years. While we are being considered as one of the world’s fastest growing economies, malnutrition is one problem that has continued to haunt us, even after seven decades of independence.

Not only this, the country has a number of schemes which provide food at subsidised rates. The public distribution system that was conceptualised soon after Independence has been revamped several times to make it more effective. The scheme helped in distribution of staple food grains like wheat, rice, sugar, kerosene through a network of fair price shops. 

However, the food grains distributed through this system was of poor quality and was not sufficient to meet the needs of the poor. To ensure that only the real poor receive the benefits, a targeted public distribution system was introduced and the benefits were discontinued to a certain kinds of people, who had certain perks like gas, scooter etc. 

Yet, we are not even close to achieving the sustainable development goals (including eradication of hunger) to which India is a signatory.

Off and on, the government, both at the Centre and in the states, has been instrumental in announcing new schemes related to food distribution. One such scheme is the National Food Security Act (NFSA) which is aimed at providing 5 kg of subsidised grains to 75 per cent of rural and 50 per cent of the urban population every month.

The Act was termed to be a game changer when the Congress-led UPA government went overboard to get it passed during the terminal year of its tenure. It is a different matter that the masterstroke did not pay any dividend during the elections. The monthly 5 kg limit was raised to 35 Kg for the poorest of the poor families, called Antyodaya.

Not only this, the Act  provides for universal maternity benefits and a free daily meal for pregnant and lactating mothers, school meals for all children from six to 14 years in government and aided schools, feeding children below six years in Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) centres and an additional meal for malnourished children.

While it was passed in September 2013, the entire responsibility of implementing the Act fell on the Narendra Modi government. The Act gave a cushion of 365 days to identify the households for receiving subsidised food.  

The comptroller and auditor general (CAG) of India found serious flaws in its implementation. Only 11 states were found to have complied with the deadline. And eight states completed the identification process as stipulated under the Act while others merely recycled the existing beneficiaries under PDS and rebranded themselves as NFSA compliant.

The Act did not provide for extension of deadline for identification of beneficiaries. It also meant that any change in this provision would require amendment in the Act with proper explanation and reasons for the delay but the government has been extending the deadline repeatedly without following the actual procedure. The Centre has been pleading that state governments have not worked on a war-footing to identify the beneficiaries.

Only 51 per cent of the beneficiaries were identified till October 2015. Needless to say, it included bogus entries. Resultantly, around 8.90 lakh bogus ration-card holders were given food grains while the deserving suffered. The mandatory maternity benefit remained only on paper and was implemented in a few chosen districts only not even in a state! 

Every year, the government has been publishing fancy data on its website. One of the recent Press releases mentioned that the Act has been implemented in 25 states and the government has taken the initiative of digitising the ration cards and has linked the scheme with the direct benefit transfers (DBT) scheme to avoid pilferage. Union Minister Ram Vilas Paswan had issued a statement that the Act would be implemented by April 2016 in all the states.

Meanwhile, the government has been issuing certain notifications to negate the very essence for which the NFSA was enacted. For instance, in 2015, the government notified the new PDS control order saying that only citizens of the country and recognized refugees shall be eligible to receive entitlements under the NFSA.

It is pertinent to note that Article 21 of the Constitution confers right to life to everyone, not to citizens alone. Even the Act never laid down the qualification of being a citizen for availing benefits. It has simply mentioned “persons”, “women” and “children” as its beneficiaries. The definition covers people of all ages, irrespective of citizenship. The notification has not been amended so far and has excluded homeless people, migrants, nomads, de-notified tribes etc. from the benefits as it is nearly impossible for such people to produce citizenship documents.

The order also stipulated that when an “Antyodaya” (poorest of the poor) household migrates or becomes ineligible due to death or improved socio-economic status, it will not be replaced by another household. In such circumstances, the entitlement will be reduced to 15 kg from 35 kg, which is against the Supreme Court order. This will also lead to reduction in the total number of families covered under the scheme gradually until the next census is conducted.

Another notification mandated AADHAR for distribution of subsidised food grains. Not only this, even mid-day meal in schools have been linked with AADHAR. Over the last few years, the AADHAR-obsessed government has made the twelve-digit unique ID mandatory for many welfare benefits in the garb of making them more effective. This has led to serious disruptions. For instance, many elderly people have been deprived of their pension benefits as they could not produce documents or were not fit to give thumb impressions or retina was found to be damaged when they applied for AADHAR.  

And to rub salt in the wounds of the poor, the government has reduced budgetary allocation for ICDS every year. This speaks about the intention of the Modi Government.

The Supreme Court, too, took note of the delay in proper implementation of the Act recently. Coming down heavily upon the Centre, the court said that, “the Centre cannot look the other way, passing buck on to States for not implementing the law”. Quoting Article 256 of the Constitution, it said that the “government cannot plead helplessness in requiring the State Governments to implement the Parliamentary laws”.

Referring to the lacklustre approach of the Haryana government, the bench comprising Justice Madan B. Lokur and Justice N.V. Ramana, took note of the State Food Commission, set up under National Food Security Act, which is “jobless and without proper infrastructure”. Not only this, there are nine states, which have not constituted the state food commission. Incidentally, the Act has entrusted the food commission with the responsibility of monitoring and reviewing the implementation of the Act.

The court expressed its dissatisfaction as some of the states have given additional responsibility to consumer disputes redressal commission constituted under the Consumer Protection Act, instead of setting up the state food commission. Worst, the court had to direct the counsel, Prashant Bhushan, for framing the draft model rules for constitution of the commission.

It is a pity that the apex court had to ask the Ministry of Consumer Affairs, Food and Public Distribution to convene a meeting of concerned secretaries of state before  August 31 to assess the implementation status of the Act, lay stress for formation of “fully-functional” food commission and vigilance committees in all states and ensure that social audit machinery is also in place.   

While our politicians go to the extent of weeping after seeing the plight of people during election campaigns, they forget what they owe to the general public as they sit in air-conditioned rooms. In such a scenario, hunger will remain India’s greatest problem. Children will continue to die of malnutrition and stunted growth. But then who cares? 

(The writer is a company secretary and director, communications, Deepalaya and can be reached at Jassi.rai@gmail.com )

(Published on 14th August 2017, Volume XXIX, Issue 33)