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The Big Food Security Debate: Universal v. Targeted

Can a right be selective?

This is a question which is probably haunting the ambitious policy makers of UPA-II, all set to enact the National Food Security Act. The draft bill, as it stands today is set to create a 'National Food Security Act' which guarantees food to the BPL and AAY families only. I ask the same question again. Can a right be selective? The draft bill has received some support on the grounds that creating a universal right to food will create too much of a burden on the exchequer, and that the production is insufficient to meet the requirement that will be created. I fail to understand as to why is it that we perceive 'Right to Food' as free food delivered by the government. Creating a universal right to food would imply that the government will ensure availability at affordable prices. It will provide direct assistance only when mandatory. The role of national governments is three fold. First, is the obligation to respect; the state governments must put reasonable limits on exercise of state’s power and must respect the right of the people to feed themselves. Second is the obligation to protect. This includes regulations against poor conduct by non-State actors which hinder people from acquiring adequate, safe food, and against unfair market practices such as monopolies so as to prevent the exploitation of consumers. Last is the obligation to fulfill. This includes positive action by the state to identify vulnerable groups, and design policies that improve their access to food-producing resources or income, thereby fulfilling their need for food.

With a procurement of over 180 Million Tonnes of wheat and rice, and a relatively lesser demand, a universal right to food is not only possible but also feasible. Furthermore, the Central Pool, intended for buffer capacity has more than twice the buffer norms. Pilferage happens as the scheme is targeted. Once it is universalised, the incentive for pilferage will decrease considerably.

Also, it is not practically possible to determine the number of poor in this country. Four separate surveys and commissions, all sponsored by the Central Government have estimated figures varying from a modest 27.5% (Planning Commission) to a high of 77% (Arjun Sengupta Committee). Any process, however precise it may be, will have errors of inclusion and exclusion. A universal scheme would automatically rule out these errors. Targeting a particular audience is akin to 'taking one step forward, and two steps backward'. The better policy alternative is to universalise the food security programme and focus on more pressing issues such as delivery, rather than being stuck on numbers, forever. 

For further queries refer to http://foodsecurityindia.blogspot.com
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