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How to tackle India’s hunger

by Biraj Patnaik, 20 July 2009

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Mint, July 2 2009

As India starts legislating on food security, there is much it could learn from laws and practices abroad

The manifesto of the Congress party promised the enactment of a Right to Food Act, if the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) was voted back to power. A preliminary shape of such an Act has emerged in what was reported in the media as the very first letter from Congress president Sonia Gandhi to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. The UPA government hopes to repeat through the passage of this Act what it had achieved during its last term through the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA)—a vision for more inclusive governance.

At the heart of the idea of the right to food is a very simple premise. That no citizen of a country should go hungry, and that each citizen should at all times have physical access to, or the means to acquire, adequate nutritious food. It is time India delivered on this.

Few countries in the world can claim to have achieved this fully, and, till recently, fewer still have legislated it. The reasons for this are not difficult to comprehend. Only a handful of developed countries have the resources and the social commitment to welfarism to make this happen.

Some countries, such as the US, which actually have the resources to achieve the goal of a country free from hunger, do not legislate it. To them, such socio-economic rights are seen as a throwback to the Cold War, when the international debates between the socialist block and the US were on the superiority of civil and political rights over socio-economic rights.
But the idea of nation states guaranteeing citizens the right to food is not a new one. Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by all United Nations member states in 1948, lists among a state’s obligation the right to food.

At the heart of the right to food is a simple premise: that no citizen of a country should go hungry

Closer home, article 21 of the Constitution, which provides a fundamental right to life and personal liberty, has been repeatedly interpreted by the Supreme Court as enshrining within it the right to food. Article 47 obliges the Indian state to raise the standard of nutrition of its people.
Despite this, India continues to have one of the worst track records globally, as far as the commitment to tackle hunger and malnutrition is concerned. The last round of the National Family Health Survey in 2006 confirmed that the child malnutrition rate in India is 46%, almost double that of sub-Saharan Africa. India, the world’s second fastest growing economy, ranks 66th among the 88 countries surveyed by the International Food Policy Research Institute (Ifpri) in the Global Hunger Index (2008), below Sudan, Nigeria and Cameroon, and slightly above Bangladesh.
Yet, India has also seen some of the most remarkable judicial activism anywhere in the world on the right to food. The landmark PUCL v. Union of India and others (2001) case, better known as the right to food case, has seen at least 60 orders over the last eight years, and has emerged as the longest continuing mandamus—a legal writ where the court orders a person or entity to do something—in the world on the right to food. Somehow, until recently, this judicial activism hasn’t translated into legislation. Now is the opportunity for India to deliver—and learn from similar legislation abroad.

Over the last few years, there has been a slew of legislation across the world which recognize the right to food as a fundamental right and provide state guarantees.

South Africa was among the first countries in the world to explicitly guarantee the right to food in its constitution through its Bill of rights. The Brazilian constitution in 1998 introduced a minimum wage to meet basic needs, including food; the constitution was further modified in 2003 to introduce the concept of social rights for every citizen, including the right to food. This process culminated in Brazil’s Nutritional Security Framework Law (Losan) in 2006, which created a set of institutions for monitoring the right to food, and is likely to be the most lasting legacy of President Luiz Inacio Lula de Silva. Article 16 of the Bolivian constitution explicitly states, “Every person has the right to water and food. The State has the obligation to guarantee food security for all through healthy, adequate and sufficient food.” Even Belarus and Moldova have clear constitutional guarantees on the right to food.

Argentina (2003) and Guatemala (2005) were the first South American countries to introduce framework laws on food security, closely followed by Ecuador (2006) and Venezuela (2008).

South Africa, Honduras, Peru, Nicaragua and Uganda have already drafted right to food legislation that is being actively considered by their respective cabinets and parliaments.

So what are the key lessons India can learn from this rich range of international experience on right to food legislation and the practice they have been put to?

The first key lesson is that of political commitment of the leadership to the idea of right to food. A case in point would be a comparison between South Africa and Brazil. While South Africa guaranteed the right to food in its constitution in 1996 through a Bill of rights, the absence of political will to turn this into reality means that millions of South Africans continue their daily encounter with hunger. In stark contrast, the determination of the Brazilian president to eliminate hunger was evident in his inaugural speech when he announced the “Fome Zero”, or “Zero Hunger”, programme. “We will make it possible for people in our country to eat three square meals a day, every day, with no need for hand-outs from anyone.” It is this unambiguous commitment that continues to be at the heart of Brazil’s battle against hunger.

The second key lesson is convergence. The right to food cuts across programmes of many sectors—including health, nutrition, agriculture, livelihoods, and labour. This means that in any context, at least a dozen ministries will be operating programmes that have some impact on the right. Converging all of these under a central leadership is critical. Brazil converged as many as 31 programmes which are now overseen by the ministry of food security and combating hunger. In the context of India, nine programmes run by five ministries, along with agencies such as the Food Corporation of India, are the respondents in the right to food case before the Supreme Court. It is imperative that our proposed legislation brings together all these programmes on a single converged platform. The state government of Delhi is currently undertaking a “Mission Convergence” with precisely this objective in mind.

The third key lesson is creating a system of not just administrative, but also legal recourse. This is a key feature of the right to food Acts across countries. In Brazil, the public prosecutors’ office take up violations of human rights, including socio-economic rights, at the local level. Guatemala, Venezuela, Brazil, Peru, Uganda and South Africa have already put in place or proposed powerful national commissions that act as oversight bodies and also have the power to impose penalties. Although the Supreme Court has appointed its own commissioners to monitor the food and employment schemes of the Indian government, these commissioners do not have the kind of statutory powers to impose penalties that the bodies in other countries do.

The fourth key lesson is the involvement of civil society. All countries which have legislated the right to food have involved civil society organizations, not just in local structures, but also in the national-level oversight bodies. Consea, the Brazilian council that oversees the implementation of the right to food, has as many as 38 civil society representatives. It is important that this engagement is not just in letter, but also in spirit, with governments taking civil society as seriously as it does its own bureaucracy and legislature. Most other countries have also involved civil society in the process of formulating their right to food legislation.

Lastly, the key to the success of right to food legislation has been flexibility and innovation. Uganda has proposed including the “head of the household” as a duty bearer, with penalties—including fines and imprisonment—imposed for non-fulfilment of right to food obligations within the family. While this may not be a desirable innovation for India, it is specific to the national context there. Venezuela, Guatemala and Ecuador have a strong component of food sovereignty, with strong safeguards against genetically modified foods.

The right to food Acts legislated globally are not only leading to stronger legal safeguards for poor and marginalized people, they are also translating into other policies and programmes. These include canteens in urban areas for the poor that serve cooked food at subsidized prices, cash transfer schemes, school meals, supplementary nutrition for infants, minimum food guarantees for labour and social security pensions.

While there is a lot that India can learn from the global experience, it can also contribute uniquely to the international discourse on legislation on the right to food. Most of the laws mentioned above are framework pieces of legislation which define the broad parameters of the right to food. The Supreme Court has already established very detailed individual entitlements that are legally binding on the government. These include universal mid-day meals to every child studying in a government-run or aided primary school, nutrition, health and preschool education services through the Integrated Child Development Services for every child under the age of 6, subsidized grain to households living below the poverty line and monthly pensions for old people living below the poverty line.
A Right to Food Act that weaves these legally binding entitlements into the text and spirit of the law will set a unique precedent globally. Are our lawmakers ready to take on this challenge?

Biraj Patnaik is principal adviser to the Supreme Court commissioners on the right to food. He has been actively involved in the Right to Food Campaign in India. The views expressed in this article are his own.

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