This is guest post by ANKITA AGGARWAL: Last week a group of about fifteen of us (students who have been working on the right to food in various capacities) met Members of Parliament to discuss the amended National Food Security Bill and how it can be improved. We knocked on the doors of more than a hundred MPs, but managed to meet only about twenty of them. Most of the MPs were away from Delhi, in their constituencies or elsewhere, and a few were “too busy” or “too tired” to meet us.
Our overall experience was quite disappointing. Most MPs were quite clueless about the Bill. But instead of using our visit as an opportunity to inform themselves about the Bill and its shortcomings, most of them preferred to indulge in rhetoric, making statements like “we will raise your demands in the Parliament” or “it’s shameful that there is hunger in the country even so many years after independence”. A few MPs talked to us at length about issues ranging from the demand for Telangana to the impossibly high cut-offs in colleges, but not about how the Bill can be salvaged. Some MPs were of the opinion that there was no scope for discussion of the Bill in Parliament, and that it was pointless to discuss it with us.
A few MPs had even got the facts about the Bill wrong. One CPI MP from Tripura thought that the Bill was mainly about cash transfers, and that people would get food only if the government was unable to give them money. A BJP MP who was also a member of the Parliamentary Standing Committee that examined the Bill was very confused about the coverage of the Public Distribution System (PDS) under the Bill. While these two MPs were willing to be corrected, another BJP MP from Madhya Pradesh stubbornly maintained that the “right to food” case in the Supreme Court was a figment of our imagination.
Few MPs were hopeful about the Bill. One Shiv Sena MP said: “Take it from me in writing, the Bill will not be passed. Forget passed, it will not be brought back to Parliament. When the government itself is not willing, how can it be passed.” He added that Sonia Gandhi was the only person in Congress who cares about the poor, and that she is a hopeless minority in her party. Another MP said quite frankly, “People think that since we are in Parliament, we can make a difference. But the truth is that we are prisoners of the party structure, of the Core Committee comprising of only six members. We have to follow what they say”.
Most MPs didn’t allow us to even finish talking about our main objections to the Bill. We were seldom able to go beyond our basic demands for a universal PDS, higher PDS entitlements, and safeguards against the replacement of food with cash. We hardly faced any opposition or challenges to our demands, probably because most of the MPs had a limited knowledge of the issues. One DMK MP from Tamil Nadu was familiar with the wonders of a universal PDS and strongly supported our demand of expanding the PDS coverage. He also proudly boasted of the midday meals pioneered in his state. On our demand for abolishing the two-child norm from the current schemes for maternity entitlements, he said that although he understood our argument, no party would publicly support this demand.
After meeting a few MPs, we could predict what we would hear from then on. From a Congress MP, we would hear the refrain that their party wants to bring the Bill, but it is the opposition which is obstructing it. In the case of an opposition party, we were likely to hear about how unworthy the Congress is.
One BJP MP and two CPI MPs, when asked about their party’s position on the Bill, replied that they “opposed” the Bill. The BJP MP didn’t seem to be aware of his own party’s stand on the issue (in a recent interview, Rajnath Singh declared that his party would support the Bill). One of the two CPI leaders, from Kerala, said that the Bill would reduce the Central Government’s foodgrain allocations to states such as Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Kerala. Even he was misinformed: in February 2013, there was a consultation with state governments where the “loser states” were brought on board by giving them an assurance that they would not lose in terms of foodgrain allocations.
Hopefully, parliamentary proceedings will give MPs a chance to give serious thought to the Bill, if and when the proceedings resume at all. If our MPs fail to realise the importance of getting this Bill passed, they will be become an important reason why, as many of them lamented, India still has to face the shame of acute hunger. A comprehensive National Food Security Bill could bring about a substantial improvement in the lives of millions of the most vulnerable in India. In the past the Parliament session has been extended to discuss important issues. Could there be a better reason than a discussion on the food bill to extend this session of Parliament?