On Monday, the Empowered Group of Ministers (EGoM), headed by Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee, cleared a version of the food security Bill that accepts several provisions recommended by the Sonia Gandhi headed-National Advisory Council (NAC) and rejects some others. Predictably, public attention has concentrated on the latter.
Unnoticed among the NAC recommendations that have been accepted by the government, therefore, lies a radical new proposal that has the potential to re-arrange the power play in the family and in society: the ration card will be issued in the name of the adult woman in the household.
Under the chapter titled “Women’s Empowerment” in the Bill passed by the EGoM, that is slimmer and more cryptic than the NAC document, the eldest woman in the family, not less than 18 years of age, shall be deemed to be the head of the household for the purpose of distribution of ration cards in every household, ‘priority’ as well as ‘general’, under the Bill. Additionally, according to the Bill, in case of a household that does not have an adult woman, but has female members below the age of 18, such members will become the head of the household on turning 18. Only in case of a household with no female member, will an adult male be treated as head of the family.
According to NAC sources, there was complete unanimity among members and strong support from Sonia Gandhi for the proposal to bring the woman centrestage because, after all, the woman is “the natural custodian of food and nutritional security in the family”.
While there are other “pro-women” features in the Bill — such as preference in licensing and management of fair price ration shops to women and women’s collectives and nutritional support to pregnant and lactating mothers as a legal entitlement — the proposed legal recognition to the woman as head of the household is likely to be the most spectacular and unprecedented step of all. Even in the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act 2005, seen to be the sterling achievement of the NAC in its first avtar, in as much as the law provided a statutory guarantee of wage employment to vulnerable groups within a rights-based framework, the woman was seen essentially as a member of the male-dominated family.