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Food Security: an alternative model

Debraj Bhattacharya

Updated: May 20, 2013, 11:46 AM IST
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Those who are following the fiasco in Parliament know that the Food Security Bill is proving to be very difficult to be debated, let alone passed. Every political party says that they want the Food Security Bill to be passed. But the BJP wants certain actions to be taken on corrupt ministers; the Congress says an investigation is on and hence nothing can be done at the moment and that the BJP is not allowing the Parliament to function. Other political parties also want their share of demands to be fulfilled. The Left, for example, wants the Food Security Bill to cover the entire population, never mind the cost. In a television debate in the evening of May 7, Amartya Sen said children are going to die if the Bill is not passed as soon as possible and a BJP representative accused him of being biased towards the Congress. There were also doubts expressed about the feasibility of the Bill. In the end it was not clear when Parliament would be able to function smoothly, if the Bill would be discussed, if amendments would be made and the legislation would be in place. The legislation is of course only the beginning. Then it would have to be followed by the actual implementation of the Act before the final beneficiaries get the food at subsidised rates and hunger is reduced.

In short, welcome to India. The chaos in Parliament and the public sphere is surely just the start and it will be very interesting to keep track of the progress of the very ambitious programme.

I think the issue of food security can be addressed within existing laws and regulations without waiting for Parliament to give another 'right' to the people and initiating a massive programme. I am not sure whether the poorest of the poor in our country are in a position to exercise their 'rights'. What they need is food and they need it quickly without any fuss. PDS reforms also do not require a new legislation to be put in place.

The other point which most debates in the public sphere seems to have missed is that many Gram Panchayats, at least in Kerala and West Bengal, are already playing an important role in providing food security to the poorest with the support from Self Help Groups. If it can be done in Kerala and West Bengal, it can be done elsewhere as well.

I recently visited a Gram Panchayat in Birbhum district of West Bengal. The name of the Gram Panchayat is Mallarpur 1 Gram Panchayat. The Gram Panchayat, now run by the Trinamool Congress, is successfully and passionately implementing a scheme that was initiated when the CPI-M was in power in the state - SAHAY. No cheap politics here. The following steps are taken to implement the programme:

1. A list is prepared of the poorest of the poor in the Gram Panchayat area. This is done according to certain indicators of the Rural Household Survey which is already done in India.

2. A budget is allocated for each person. In case of West Bengal, Rs 20 is given by the state government and Rs 2 is added by the Gram Panchayats. This is the money used per person per day to provide wholesome food to the poorest.

3. The food is prepared by the Self Help Groups. This is important as many of the poorest are so destitute that they are not in a position to cook their own food.

4. At noon, the beneficiaries come to a particular place (in this case the home of the SHG leader) where they are provided hot sumptuous meal, consisting of rice, lentils, vegetables throughout the week and non-vegetarian items once a week. I have personally seen such a lunch in progress and everybody was happily eating the hot food that was being served to them.

5. Those who wish not to eat the food there but take them home are given packed food in a metal tiffin box. The tiffin box is paid for by the Gram Panchayat. This has proved to be a popular innovation as sometimes the old and the ill cannot come to the centre where lunch is provided.

6. The beneficiaries are also provided a packet of puffed rice for eating in the evening.

7. The support to the poorest does not stop with provision of food. During winter, woolen clothes are also provided to them.

8. Those who are ill are provided medical support as far as possible.

9. Finally, those who can work once their health improves are integrated with other schemes such as MGNREGS so that they can start their own income. In the particular Gram Panchayat I visited, about 20 per cent of the beneficiaries were integrated with economic activities in this manner.

10. It was also heartening to see the compassion and love with which the Self Help Group members were serving food to the poorest. Clearly there was a relationship of respect and love for the people to whom they were serving the food.

This experience taught me several things, which has made me even more sceptical of the Food Security Bill. When it comes to the poorest and the elderly people who have no one to look after them, it is not enough to simply give subsidised wheat and rice at a cheap rate. The crucial difference that Rampurhat 1Gram Panchayat is making is that they are serving hot cooked food to the beneficiaries. Similarly when the old and the poor are suffering from a disease or from the winter cold they are provided warm clothing. When they need medical support they are provided at least some medical support. The Self Help Groups are constantly looking after the poorest in the GP to ensure that whatever can be done for them is done within the limits of the budget.

It is such constant care on part of the Gram Panchayat and the Self Help Groups that can truly make a difference. Simply providing cheap rice and wheat via the PDS shop will most probably fail to make an impact.
First Published: May 20, 2013, 11:46 AM IST