May 2, 2014

Asserting the right to food

A number of civil society groups and individuals worked towards bringing in appropriate amendments to the Right to Food Bill to make it more comprehensive. Students for Right to Food (RTF) is one such association. Volunteers with Student RTF, Ria Singh Sawhney, Ankita Aggarwal and Inayat Anaita Sabhikhi, speak about the contribution of students towards this cause.

What was the aim of involving students in this campaign?

Students for Right to Food emerged as an informal group of volunteers across universities who wanted to address the issue of food security. One of the crucial aims of this initiative was political education, to give students who have so much goodwill a chance to be engaged adults and contribute in a meaningful way.
The students have been involved in a wide variety of public action — from lobbying with Members of Parliament (MPs) to writing on the importance of universal social security systems, volunteering during press conferences, dharnas, rallies and other forms of street protest.

How did the MPs respond to the students’ suggestions on making amendments to this Bill?
The students have been visiting the homes of MPs in Delhi since the 2010 Monsoon session. Their responses have been quite varied. A few are dismissive and patronising, others clueless. Most are cordial and at the very least, either they or their staff accept the petition and promise to read about the issue. Some actually engage with the students, and debate the opposing viewpoints. A few also ask for more information on the issues addressed in the Bill and supporting evidence for the amendments suggested by the students.

This past monsoon session, some Sahariyas Saathis (Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Group from Rajasthan), joined us during the lobbying rounds. It was useful to get the intended beneficiaries of the food legislation and the lawmakers face to face.

Can you comment on the level of students’ involvement over the past few years?

Some students participate only intermittently, especially during street actions when volunteers are required for myriad tasks, such as helping with the planning of events, preparing posters, helping participants who come from other states find their way through the city and documenting the proceedings. Some even help from distant locations with tasks such as preparing media lists, making appointments with MPs on phones and disseminating the campaign’s demands through social media.
Others have a more sustained involvement and even help in preparing campaign material such as demand charters, press releases and flyers. Some go on to work full-time with social movements, NGOs and government wings working on social security, or make related issues the focus of their research theses.

How has the response been to various activities conducted in the run-up to the passing of the Bill? For example, surveys were conducted to study the situation of the PDS, ICDS and Roti Bhat Satyagrah.

Students have usually responded enthusiastically and in large numbers whenever an appeal for volunteers has been sent out. As most of the lobbying work and other public action during the parliament sessions takes place in Delhi, participation is usually restricted to students living in the city. Some initiatives have been made to campaign with MPs in other cities like Mumbai and Bangalore.

To what extent were you able to achieve what you set out to do, in terms of making the Right to Food Bill more comprehensive through suitable amendments?

The focus of the students in their lobbying was to urge the parliamentarians to discuss the Bill and the proposed amendments. Given the egregious disruptions to Parliament proceedings in the last few sessions, the politicisation of the Bill and the vehement anti-Bill sentiments expressed by the business media, even the mere passing of the Bill has to be seen as a major achievement for all the groups and individuals involved. Given that students return to volunteer whenever needed, we hope this is an indicator that it is a meaningful way for them to engage with these issues.

What is the future course of action for Student RTF?

There is a lot of work ahead with respect to the implementation of the Bill across states.
The real test will come when it is implemented in letter and spirit and will no doubt need constant vigilance of local communities, as well as all efforts of engaged citizens, like our student volunteers.

We hope to actively reach out to a wider section of young people across the country who could be engaged in these issues and contribute at the local level as well.

As appeared in The Hindu here

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