06 July 2014

'Ensure Universal Food Coverage'

In 2013, the National Food Security Act was passed by the Parliament with the clause that implementation of the Act would be started by 5th July 2014. However, today we find that the Act is still far from being put into operation. On the other hand, food inflation is continuing unabated, causing great problems to the people at large. In addition, in chronic hunger pockets such as the closed tea gardens, we are seeing another spate of deaths. While it may be endlessly debated whether the immediate cause of these deaths is starvation, it is well accepted that these areas, as well as in other areas are suffering from chronic hunger, the suffering of the people is huge and needs urgent attention.      

In this context, a team from the Right to Food and Work Campaign West Bnegal consisting of Anuradha Talwar, Swapan Ganguly, Saradindu Biswas, Debojyoti Chakraborty and Fr. Jothi S.J. met the Minister for Food and Civil Supplies on July 5.

The network raised its demand for universal coverage under the National Food Security Act. The Minister informed us that it has been the stand of their Government that universal coverage should be there. He further informed us that 22 states had made the same demand in the meeting of Food Ministers held in Delhi on 4th July. As the Central Government would have to move an amendment in parliament for deferring the date for implementation of the Act, he said that it was possible that an amendment for universal coverage could also be moved, as 22 States had asked for it.

Considering food is the most basic right of the people, we insist that the State Government declares universal coverage through a State level Act or Scheme. We demand that the State Government put this into practice by at least putting forth a plan for universal coverage over the next 5 years, along with a plan for resource mobilisation.  

We would like to draw attention to the following:

1.      Despite a year having passed since the Act (first in the form of an Ordinance) was promulgated, the State of West Bengal seems to be still unprepared for the implementation of the Act.
a.       The Socio Economic Caste Census on which the choice of beneficiaries depends is still incomplete. The survey lists are available online only in 9 out of 19 districts. Lists are incomplete even where they have been put online. Public display of draft lists has not taken place in most places, nor have hearings for correction been conducted. We asked the Minister to ensure that this task is completed immediately so that the Government can start actual choice of beneficiaries.

b.      For choice of beneficiaries, we urged the use of simple exclusion criteria , excluding those who have Government jobs , permanent well paid jobs, income tax payers, those who own 4 wheeled vehicles, owners of large businesses etc. This would simplify the task of choice of beneficiaries and lead to fewer errors. The Minister was of the view that universal coverage was a better option.    

c.       Rules under the Act are still far from being framed. We insisted that this task also be taken up on a war footing.

2.      Grievance redressal and people’s vigilance are an important part of ensuring that food grains actually reach the beneficiaries. We welcome the Government’s decision to include NGO representatives in Monitoring and Vigilance committees up to the block level. We would however from our past experience of these committees urge the Government to ensure proper training and regular functioning of these committees. The Minister promised to support our efforts in this matter and to be present for the first meeting of NGO representatives.

3.       The deaths in tea gardens have left us very perturbed as they are part of a trend that started in 2003. The Government, both the past one and the present one seem unable to deal with the problem.  We welcome the setting up of a permanent committee of three ministers to oversee the steps being taken in the gardens We would urge the Government to ensure that the following:
a.       Supreme Court orders ensuring AAY rations, NREGA work, FAWLOI, medical facilities, drinking water, ICDS and MDMS coverage are enforced

b.      Regular monitoring through a district level cell of these schemes takes place

c.       Just as AAY rations are being continued in all closed and formerly closed gardens, FAWLOI should also not be discontinued in gardens which are going through cycles of closure and opening.

d.      Under NREGA, workers suffer immensely because of delayed payments. Payment of part of the wages at least should be made on a daily basis.

e.       The Government should take proactive steps to ensure that employers do not abandon gardens so easily. Such steps would include punishment of rogue employers who abandon the gardens, recovery of workers’ dues such as gratuity, provident fund  etc., cancellation of lease to find new employers etc.

f.       As the underlying problem is the abysmally low level of wages in tea gardens, we urge the Government to take a pro-active role in the on-going industry level negotiations to ensure a living wage for the workers. We also urge you to declare a minimum wage for tea workers under the Minimum Wages Act.

The Minister informed us of a permanent inspection system for 23 closed gardens. 

The Network is also sending a fact finding team to 6 closed gardens from 7th to 13th July 2014.The report will especially examine the steps the Government has taken and the results will be shared with the Government. It also plans to set up a permanent monitoring system.

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