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033: The Right to Food Act with Biraj Patnaik (Day 3)

Updated: Aug 25, 2022

Anyone who can lucidly explain to a non-specialist/ non-legal audience, the landmark “National Food Security Act/ Right to Food Act” is a rockstar! Biraj Patnaik, formerly the Principal Advisor to the Commissioners of the Indian Supreme Court in the Right to Food case (which ran for 16 years! from 2001 to 2017), and currently the Executive Director of the National Foundation for India (NFI) was unambiguous, frank, and surprisingly down to earth in his talk yesterday on the third day of the ‘Food and Politics’ workshop.

He opened up our eyes to the complexities of a nation that simultaneously has a surplus of grain reserves, and yet witnesses countless ‘starvation deaths’ across the country. He explained that in 2001, the government godowns had enough staples that if the sacks of rice and wheat were to be lined up, they would cover the distance to the moon and halfway back. This was a great improvement from our “ship to mouth” existence in the 1960s, where the nation had to import wheat (via ships) in order to feed the population (mouths) and which led to the formation of the Food Corporation of India (FCI).

And yet in Rajasthan, following the severe drought of 1999 -2000, there was a dire famine where citizens had a scarcity of grains (dhani), water (pani), and fodder (chara) for the cattle. This glaring disparity led a group of mostly female activists, journalists, academics along with the ‘Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan’ to file a petition at the Supreme Court on behalf of the ‘People’s Union for Civil Liberties’. Eventually this resulted in the landmark ‘Right to Food Act’ in 2013.

Under this act previously food security ‘schemes’ (aspirational directives for the states) were converted to ‘entitlements’ which means that they are rights and are justiciable (can be defended in a court of law). Moreover state governments and officials can be held in contempt in court if they do not deliver on the stated directives.

The ‘Right to Life’ is a fundamental right in the constitution of India. The campaigners of the ‘Right to Food’ argued that a citizen cannot be guaranteed a Right to Life, without a guarantee to be “free from hunger and undernutrition”. Hence they must be assured ‘availability’ (grain surplus), ‘access’ (fair public distribution) and ‘absorption’ (with micronutrients) of food in order to be able to live a life of dignity. Right to work, land reform, and social security are converging rights that the campaign also highlighted.

Some salient features of the Act:

  1. The poorest of the poor are entitled to 35 kgs per household per month under the Antyodaya Anna Yojana (AAY).

  2. A subsidized price of rice at INR 3 per kg, wheat at INR 2/- per kg and millets at INR 1/- per kg to be made available under the Public Distribution Systems for which the state governments are accountable.

  3. Maternity benefit of INR 6000/- for women who would otherwise lose their livelihoods as farm hands and labourers in the informal sector due to pregnancy and childbirth.

  4. Integrated Child Development Schemes at rural child care centres known as ‘Anganwadis (literally courtyard shelters)’ for children under the age of 6 to ensure immunization, deworming and early nutrition.

  5. The mid-day meal scheme at government primary schools to ensure that children are fed a hot, nutritious meal which is cooked, served and consumed on the school’s campus. The budget is INR 2.5/- per child per meal in addition to free grains that are provided by the government. Hunger forces children to not attend school, as well as inhibits learning even if they are able to attend. Moreover there is an emphasis on ‘hot’ foods so as to avoid monopoly by corporate interests in the mid-day meal arena, as can be seen in public schools in the United States.


  1. The Food Corporation of India. Established in 1964

  2. The National Foundation for India

  3. National Family Health Survey, released on November 24, 2021 (coincidentally on the day of his talk).

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