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Ensuring food security for all
Tuesday, 01 June, 2010, 08 : 00 AM [IST]
By Pradeep S Mehta
Another provision in the bill says that state governments may provide subsidised food to above poverty line families but the Centre was not required to assist states for this. Such provisions not only adds another dimension to the contentious nature of our federal fiscal relations, but also lead to discrimination.

Not only does right to food need to be universalised , a fresh approach is required to revamp the existing public distribution system. The bill provides that panchayats and urban local bodies should be encouraged to join the PDS. India's local political economy, with fair price shop owners being politically active at the local level, is such that not only that it will not work but, more importantly, it will make access to food more of a subject of local political calculus, which it should not be.

It has been found that consumer cooperatives are far more effective in running the public distribution system than private owners. There is an inbuiltaccountability mechanism in a cooperative system. State governments, who are constitutionally responsible for managing the food and civil supplies system in their domains, should encourage the formation of consumer cooperatives. They should also adequately empower the third tier to ensure better governance and accountability of consumer cooperatives.

According to one school of thought, the existing PDS should be replaced with food stamps for the poor. Vested interests will oppose such a move, but it is not an either-or situation . A system to provide food stamps should coexist with the public distribution system run by consumer cooperatives. The existing competition scenario in our local food markets is due to a systemic failure. That could be changed by inculcating a better competition culture - by giving the poor an opportunity to exercise their right to choice. That would ensure a systemic mechanism for better governance and accountability in place.

Right to food is not just about getting a minimum quantity of foodgrains at subsidised rates, but about broader issues of food security, which is both physical and economic . This right cannot be ensured by just having a legislation, but by considering the whole system of public welfare. But, if we consider food security as one significant component of the right to satisfaction of basic needs, we need a comprehensive national food security policy, consistent with the Universal Declaration on Human Rights and the Rome Declaration on World Food Security.

(The author is secretary general of CUTS International. The article was first published in the Economic Times)
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