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Debating India’s food security bill

Four years after the new food security bill was first proposed, it is finally being debated in India’s parliament.

In 2009, the Congress party of India made an election promise to ensure food security to all households. Around two-thirds of India’s population eat an inadequate diet in terms of calories and malnutrition is widespread among the nation’s children – nearly half of under-fives in India are stunted (according to the latest World Health Organisation data). A promise to address food security was therefore hugely appealing to India’s voters and helped to ensure the Congress party won power as the leading constituent of the governing United Progressive Alliance.

With elections now due again within a year, the government is keen to push the food security bill through. The bill does however contain some changes to the initial promise of universal access. Instead of every household being eligible to receive 35kg of subsidised grain each month (through the public distribution system), subsidised grain will be provided to ‘priority’ households only and allocated on a per person basis, of 7kg per month. State governments will also be given the option of replacing the grain allowance with cash transfers.

Under the proposed definition of ‘priority households’, around two-thirds of the population would currently qualify for a food or cash allowance. But opponents of the bill worry that in the future, specific criteria could be used to exclude people unfairly or unwisely. Such scepticism is fuelled by how low official poverty levels have been set in the past – see ‘Living on less than half a dollar per day in India’.

In a recent Guardian article, concern is also expressed about how the new bill will affect states which are already running successful and near-universal food subsidy programmes. For example, states such as Tamil Nadu and Kerala already have good public distribution systems for subsidised grain. The new legislation is likely to affect the cost of such schemes, with larger programmes potentially needing to buy grain from the open market to top up their requirements.

Despite arguments over the potential flaws of the bill, proponents are keen to see it become law before the next election. Sceptics say this is purely due to political motivations; but there are also those who believe that, in conjunction with the new unique identity scheme, the bill will ensure a fairer distribution of food so that subsidised grain reaches the families who need it most.

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