Food security: Chhattisgarh whets appetite

Semi Column

Days before the Chhattisgarh Assembly enacted the historic Food Security Act, Women and Child Development Minister Lata Usendi informed the House that 1,15,093 children are malnourished in Bastar, 31,034 of them severely. The figures in Surguja, another tribal-dominated zone, are expected to be almost the same given the deaths of kids attributed to severe malnourishment there. This situation has existed alongside the PDS and other food-related schemes in the two divisions that together constitute 12 of the state's 27 districts.

So what does the new law offer Chhattisgarh's tribals? First, it makes food a right, binding on the government to ensure it, failure of which is punishable under the Essential Commodities Act. Second, in a tremendous sweep, several groups have been given food entitlement to the extent that the law covers 50 lakh or nearly 90 per cent of the total 56 lakh households in the state. Of these, 42 lakh are BPL. Third, it confronts hunger directly. The government is mandated to provide "immediate relief to persons, groups or communities suffering from hunger or conditions akin to hunger" in the form of "two meals per day". The language and intention of the Act are as clear as they get. There is no circumvention, exceptions or disclaimers usually associated with government notifications.

Fourth, it not only fixes the entitlements including foodgrain, gram and salt, but mandates nutritional standards like calorie and protein value for children under mid-day meal, pregnant women and lactating mothers. Transparency and accountability are ensured through vigilance committees, social audits and internal grievance-redressal mechanisms. The state has set aside Rs 2,311 crore a year for the entitlements, 6 per cent of its budget.

For their failure in ensuring PDS in interior areas, officials often take the Maoist alibi. It will be interesting to watch how foodgrain will now reach Dandakaranya and Jashpur, and erring officers punished. CM Raman Singh understands the benefits should this law change the face of tribes. He introduced Rs 1 per kg rice scheme before the last Assembly polls and was instantly termed "chaaur wala baba" (the old man with the rice sack). He won that election. The next polls are not far.

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