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India’s Right to Food Act: Beyond Rhetoric

Reetika Khera
June 7, 2010

Prior to the 2009 general elections, the Indian National Congress promised twenty-five kilograms of food-grain per month, at three rupees per kilogram, to every poor family in India.Reports indicate that there are moves to deliver on this promise. Congress’ eagerness to make good on this promise can be traced to the widely-held view that the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) played an important role in the victory of the Congress. Another reason for Congress’ eagerness could be the electoral success of those state governments where similar provisions of cheap food-grain are already in place, indicating “political capital” to be gained through such policies.

There are, of course, substantive reasons for a Right to Food Act (RTF). India’s food security and nutrition indicators are among the worst in the world. Worse, some of these indicators have barely improved in recent years. For instance, the proportion of underweight children was much the same in 1998-99 and 2005-06, according to National Family Health Survey (NFHS) data.

There are legal compulsions too; the interpretation of Article 21 (the fundamental "right to life") of the Indian Constitution, as encompassing the right to food, Article 47 of the Directive Principles which directs the state to “regard the raising of the level of nutrition and the standard of living of its among its primary duties,” andIndia being a signatory to various international treaties on these issues. Most importantly, the Supreme Court has issued several orders pertaining to nutrition-related schemes in the “right to food case.”

The electoral promise provides an excellent opportunity to put in place a comprehensive RTF Act that would help to deal with the country’s dismal record on nutrition and health, and to enshrine the Court's orders in law.

A Possible Framework

What shape should a RTF Act take? The right to food goes beyond the provision of subsidized cereals. It is about ensuring freedom from hunger, malnutrition and other deprivations associated with the lack of food. This requires not only nutritious food but also attention to child care, clean water, hygiene, basic health care, etc. Unfortunately, this goes beyond the sort of legislation that is being contemplated, and requires political will and vision of a kind that is sorely lacking.

A complex legislation, the RTF Act will impact a wide section of the population with diverse needs. To illustrate, for infants, the right to food requires focusing on breastfeeding, maternal health, and safe drinking water. In the case of vulnerable groups – the aged, disabled and widows – pensions are needed along with the Public Distribution System (PDS). At the very least, the RTF Act should build on four major types of interventions: nutrition schemes for children, the PDS, social assistance for vulnerable groups (e.g., pensions) and other interventions. These should cover not only rural areas but also urban areas (or at least the most impoverished sections).

Children ought to have the first claim under the RTF Act. Research on nutrition has unambiguously demonstrated that it is in the 0-3 years of age group that nutritional interventions are most required. In terms of the new law, this would imply strengthening the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS), especially the services for children under three. Maternity entitlements (including income support for child birth) are also important and should be included.

Given the vulnerabilities faced by very large sections of the rural poor, the Public Distribution System (PDS) plays an important role in the realization of the right to food. A universal PDS should form the basis of the RTF Act, with “expanded” entitlements including, for instance, subsidized pulses and oil to ensure better nourishment for those who are poor and vulnerable.

Special attention will be necessary to the food-insecure in urban areas; adequate coverage under the PDS, community kitchens for those who are unable to access PDS such as migrants, the homeless, and the destitute). Their vulnerabilities are magnified because in urban areas, there is hardly any recourse to charity from neighbors, forest products, and the like.

Interventions, such as pensions for the aged and disabled, and for widows are necessary as these vulnerable groups have little recourse to other sources of cash. Available evidence suggests that the relatively small cash transfers through existing pension schemes for such groups serve as a lifeline for many of their beneficiaries. Finally, special measures (e.g., community kitchens) to deal with emergencies and disasters (such as floods, earthquakes, and riots) are also required.

Contentious Issues: Financial Implications and Universal PDS

An important issue that needs to be addressed is that of cost. Though expensive, such legislation is feasible. Many of the proposals for the RTF Act are already in place as government schemes, such as the Mid-Day Meal scheme, and the ICDS. In 2009-10, the central government spent 642 billion rupees on these schemes. The RTF Act will, of course, result in an increase in the food bill that will depend on the extent to which the current schemes are expanded and improved. As an example, "universalization with quality" of the ICDS would require a committed expenditure of 300 billion rupees per year.

Another big item on the food bill could be a universal PDS. The cost can be calculated as the difference between the so-called “economic cost” of grain – total cost of delivering food through the Food Corporation of India – and issue price multiplied by quantity. Based on this, the total cost would be around 820-1,150 billion rupees (for a quota of twenty-five or thirty-five kilograms respectively). These illustrative calculations suggest that the total cost, with better coverage and expanded entitlements, is likely to be about twice as large as the current food bill.

PDS: Universal, not Uniform

The proposal for a universal PDS is likely to be hotly debated because of the cost and the corruption afflicting the current system. Nevertheless, a universal PDS is appealing for several reasons. The “right to food” has to be a universal right. Further, targeting is also costly, and includes identifying beneficiaries and targeting errors. Most importantly, the targeted approach is very divisive. Universal programs – such as NREGA – create solidarity among the poor. As Amartya Sen says, “benefits for the poor end up being poor benefits.”

One option would be to start with universalizing the PDS in the poorest two hundred districts with provisions for time-bound extension to other districts. Another option is to universalize coverage with lower entitlements. Such variants of the system are currently in place in some states, such as Andhra Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Kerala and Tamil Nadu. This universalization needs to be accompanied by effective grievance redressal mechanisms. Strong penalties and a time-bound framework for disposing appeals must be put in place. Lessons can be learned from Tamil Nadu and Chhattisgarh to prevent large scale diversion of PDS grain.

Politically, the main challenge is to ensure that the RTF Act is not trivialized by reducing it to the electoral promise of “twenty-five kilograms at three rupees per kilogram for below poverty line households.” The ultimate shape of the RTF Act will depend on whether the government merely seeks to gain “political capital” from it, or whether it is guided by its responsibility to the people of India. The government's eagerly-awaited draft will help to clarify whether the government’s commitment to the “aam aadmi” (common man, and presumably women and children too) goes beyond electoral rhetoric.

Reetika Khera is affiliated with the Indian Statistical Institute, Delhi. This article has been adapted from a more detailed version printed in Economic & Political Weekly.She can be reached at


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