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The right to food must be for all

The recommendation by the National Advisory Council for a revised Food Security Bill is, in essence, a proposal to enhance entitlements in some spheres while reducing them in others. The enhancement lies in the fact that the Bill will recognise, for the first time, a justiciable right to food for all persons in the yet-to-be-identified 150 ‘most disadvantaged' districts. The reduction lies in the fact that the revised Bill will not envisage such a right to food as a universal right, but as one restricted to a target group — in this case, to be identified by geographical targeting. This is in contravention of the letter and spirit of Article 11 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which declares that the right to food must be for all individuals (and not circumscribed by region or any other factor) and that a variety of instruments must be used to respect, protect, and fulfil that right. The most unjust feature of the proposed revised Bill will be the restriction of the right to food to people living in a fourth of India's districts and not even necessarily comprising a fourth of the country's deprived population — the world's largest mass of poor, credibly estimated to be in the region of 800 million. A malnourished person must have recourse to the same justiciable right to food wherever she or he lives. The parallel the NAC draws with the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme in this respect, that is, with a scheme begun on a pilot basis in 150 districts and then extended across the country, is misleading. The National Rural Employment Guarantee Act offered a new entitlement. By contrast, the institutional structure for the public distribution system and other measures of food and nutrition security — notably, school meals and supplementary nutrition for mothers and young children — are already in place throughout the country.

‘Rising India' is way off track in implementing the first Millennium Development Goal, that is, halving (during 2000-2015) the population in extreme poverty and hunger. The central government must wake up to the enormity of the task of ensuring adequate food and nutrition to our population. The least it can do here and now — in line with international covenants — is to make the right to food a universal entitlement. Tamil Nadu has shown that this is eminently achievable. Not committing the necessary financial resources to this end at the all-India level signals weakness of political will. It also means ideologically misconstrued social priorities. It goes without saying that the obligation to fulfil a right to food for all will require special and additional interventions and safeguards to serve the most vulnerable and food-deprived sections of our population.

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