In fiscal 2008, India produced 250 million tons of food grain—the highest amount in recent years. But on the flip side, we have food grain rotting in godowns and cannot even store half of it. While India struggles to provide food to 320 million people who go to bed hungry every day, it also needs to find ways to get out of this mess it is entangled itself in.
The very definition of food security is based on how India has defined its poverty line. Whether this has worsened the hunger and poverty levels in the country or improved the state of affairs remains a question unanswered. While poverty looks like an ostensible entity and superficial measure of hunger, it ends up perpetuating it further.
Food security, as understood internationally, involves physical, economic and social access to a balanced diet, safe drinking water, environmental hygiene and primary health care.
M.S. Swaminathan, a renowned agricultural scientist, explains that “such a definition will involve concurrent attention to the availability of food in the market, the ability to buy needed food and the capability to absorb and utilize the food in the body. Thus, food and non-food factors (i.e., drinking water, environmental hygiene and primary health care) are involved in food security.”
The Supreme Court has interpreted Article 21 of the Indian Constitution to mean that access to proper food is a basic human right. But millions in the country are denied this right through no fault of their own. This contradicts the whole concept of democracy, which India proudly boasts of, because a basic right of people has been denied.
Causes for food insecurity in India
Understanding the causes of food insecurity is as vital as understanding food security. Large-scale displacement of people, migration from rural to urban areas and suppression of the lower castes and tribes (based on caste hierarchy) are identified as key factors for the same.
The reason for large-scale displacement of people is mainly due to construction of dams, which has displaced almost 8 million people, mining and land grabbing as the archaic Land Acquisition Act, 1894, has compelled people to become landless laborers.
Displacing the indigenous people from their natural habitat itself forces hunger to become a part of their lives. Rehabilitation remains a mere promise. Neither compensation for land nor any financial assistance to the ones displaced is provided, leaving them vulnerable and reducing them to a state of destitution and helplessness.
Migration is one of the repercussions of displacement. Other reasons for migration include lack of adequate health care services in rural areas, no proper water and sanitation facilities, and massive crop failure due to the advent of genetically modified crops. As a result, the population of the urban poor is on the rise in towns and cities, which by extension, requires providing more resources to more people. This has ultimately led to unequal distribution of resources that also increases the gap between the rich and the poor.
Adding to the problem, caste has always been an impediment to development in India. Given the history of subversion and oppression of lower castes in India, the caste factor crops up every time poverty and hunger is discussed. Untouchability is a part and parcel of the caste system, which is practiced even today and deprives the Dalits and tribes of their rights.
The government’s role
Meanwhile, the government has come up with many proposals for the National Food Security Act. It states: “The act would be formulated whereby each below poverty line (BPL) family would be entitled by law to get 25 kg of rice or wheat per month at Rs 3/- per kg. The above poverty line (APL) population will be excluded from the targeted public distribution system (TPDS).”
Another draft of the act which was prepared by a team headed by Jean Dreze in 2009 said that the entitlements were all in place through eight food and nutrition-related schemes.
The NAC’s recommendations on the bill said that “in the first phase, food entitlements should be extended to 85 percent of the rural population and 40 percent of the urban population. Full coverage of food entitlements as enumerated above should be extended to all by March 31, 2014.”
The obscure poverty line
While the government has set up various committees which came up with alternative recommendations for the National Food Security Bill, the division of families into APL and BPL itself looks unclear. In one of his articles, P. Sainath, an eminent rural affairs journalist, says that “the government has seen people in the APL category as the enemies of those who are BPL.”
The government calls a family a BPL family if its members consume less than 2,100 calories a day. If a single member’s consumption exceeds 2,100 calories a day, it is categorized as an above poverty line (APL) family. But, most BPL families in rural areas live on Rs.17 per day per person and Rs.20 per day per person in urban areas, which cannot buy anything that equals 2100 calories. However, in the process of watching calorie intake, we have forgotten the importance of nutrition in enabling people to lead a healthy, productive life. At this point, we need to question whether 2,100 calories would make a person healthy.
If providing rice and wheat at subsidized rates meant nutrition, why does India have half of world’s malnourished children? Why do we rank 128th in the Human Development Index among 185 countries? Why do a majority of women in more than 10 states suffer anemia during reproductive age?
PDS and its problems
In the backdrop of food security, a universal Public Distribution System (PDS) was proposed as it promised food security to every citizen in the country. According to the Eleventh Five Year Plan, under the PDS, “the central government is responsible for transportation and procurement of food grains.” However, small amounts of food grain are pilfered and sold on the black market. Thus, corruption is on the rise that is marring the purpose of the system proposed.
The PDS has not been instrumental in curbing poverty and hunger in other parts of India except for Kerala and Tamil Nadu. The irregularities in the PDS are the biggest drawback of the food security bill. Estimating the amount of grain required to sustain a universal PDS, the National Commission on Farmers (2006) said that 60 million tons of food grain would be required.
To tackle food security, there are various models we can follow. Brazil’s “zero hunger” program is one of them. This measure involves steps to enhance productivity of small land holdings and the consumption capacity of the poor. Our farmers will produce more if we are able to purchase more. Emphasis on agricultural production, particularly small-farm productivity, is a single step which makes the largest contribution to poverty eradication and hunger elimination.
In Kenya, BAACH (Business Alliance against Chronic Hunger) has partnered with 30 companies to tackle chronic hunger. These companies bought local farmers’ products and helped them find new markets to add value to their produce. This eliminates middlemen enabling the farmers get the market value for their products.
Swaminathan suggests that “combining universal and unique entitlements, the four-pronged strategy indicated in Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee’s budget speech should be implemented jointly by gram panchayats, State governments and Union Ministries speedily and earnestly.”
Transparency, decentralizing the procurement and distribution of food grain to local-level bodies, allowing farmers to directly sell their produce in the markets at fair prices and conducting a monthly social audit in every village on PDS are some of the few steps we can follow in tackling food security.