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India Formulates Sweeping New Legal Guarantee of Right to Food


A family of workers sits near a kitchen fire at a makeshift shelter near a construction site, in Gurgaon, India, (file photo)

A family of workers sits near a kitchen fire at a makeshift shelter near a construction site, in Gurgaon, India, (file photo)

This week, an annual hunger index put India behind North Korea and Sudan in terms of addressing malnutrition. Now, India is believed to be less than a year away from enacting a sweeping law it hopes will bring relief.

Ambitious law

Hundreds of millions of Indians live near the brink of starvation. Biraj Patnaik, a Commissioner to India's Supreme Court, is advising policy makers on a new law to help change that.

"The National Food Security Act is by far one of the most ambitious legislations that have been attempted in this country since independence," Patnaik said.

The act would legislate the right to food in India, largely in the form of subsidized wheat and rice from the government. Patnaik, who has worked on the law for ten years, says a lot of time has been spent determining just who should be legally entitled to food security.

"That's really the debate," said Patnaik. "Whether India should really be looking at identifying a poverty line and targeting people, or should they just be looking at creating universal entitlement where every single citizen in the country is entitled to this right, whether they choose to exercise it or not."

Reliance on PDS

The act would rely in large part on India's Public Distribution System. The PDS handles massive amounts of government grain, but is widely criticized for waste, corruption and inefficiency. Indian authorities acknowledge less than half the grains processed through the PDS actually make it to the intended recipients. Indian media have also focused public attention in recent months on thousands of tons of grain rotting in the open, due to insufficient storage capacity.

The new law is expected to spell out reforms of the Public Distribution System, including new investments in transport and storage. Devinder Sherma, a food policy analyst, says the new law should aim to decentralize the food system and set up local grain banks.

"I don't understand why, in a village where people produce food -- and in fact many times surplus food-- people should be going hungry in that same village," Sherma said. "Let's make villages self-sufficient as far as food is concerned. And then we target only the urban centers by this public distribution system."

Hunger index

Purnima Menon is a research fellow at the Institute for Food Policy Research in New Delhi. Her institute's 2010 Global Hunger Index, which came out this week, ranked India 67th worst out of 84 developing nations battling hunger.

She says the law has sparked discussions that go beyond how to distribute wheat and rice. She views the law as an opportunity for India to completely redefine food security.

"What does it mean for a child whose only food security is to be breast fed? Is the Food Security Act going to actually cover that, and make sure that mom is able to stay home from work and breast feed, because, really, that's the only way you can ensure food security for a baby," Menon said.

Biraj Patnaik, the Supreme Court Commissioner, is confident the law will pass. But once that happens, he is concerned about whether the government has the political will to enforce it.

"Can an ordinary person who is deprived of their entitlement under this act ever hope that they would get justice out of the system and that their grievance would be addressed?... If a child dies of malnutrition... someone has to be punished," Patnaik said.

Others have expressed concern that issues of clean water and sanitation for India's poorest regions have been left out of the debate over the National Food Security Act. Ensuring those services are key in helping the poor avoid illnesses that prevent them from absorbing nutrition.

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