In fragile political and security situations, rising food prices can also trigger unrest or protest, and contribute to conflict
Food security, as defined by the World Food Summit (WFS) and the Food and Agricultural Organization, “As and when all people at all times have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food that meets their dietary and food preferences for an active life”. There are four aspects to food security: food availability, access to food, food utilisation and stability. For a community to be food secure it must have enough food available to it, be able to easily access enough of that food to remain healthy (including a sufficiently diverse diet that provides adequate levels of micronutrients) and it must be confident that those conditions will persist into the future. Food security is also linked with a host of other factors, such as, socio-economic development, human rights and the environment. It has situational ramifications as well. For instance, the price rise of various foods, such as onions and sugar, has been a major issue during the previous years. Therefore, a rise in food prices is bound to have consequences which cannot just be restricted to hunger and malnutrition, but it can also result in increasing health care expenditure and a greater economic burden on the citizens.
Poor health and nutrition would also have an adverse impact on education, as children would be forced to stay away from schools. In fragile political and security situations, rising food prices can also trigger unrest or protest, and contribute to conflict. The serious concerns related to food security in the developing countries have assumed global proportions in the last few years, with a need for urgent action. The 1996 World Food Summit (WFS) in Rome had pledged to eradicate hunger in all countries, with an immediate view of reducing the number of undernourished people to half their present level no later than 2015. Further, the first of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), established in the year 2000 by the UN, had included the target of cutting by half the proportion of people who suffer from hunger by 2015. Progress towards meeting this MDG target is assessed not only by measuring under-nourishment or hunger, but also by a second indicator, i.e. the prevalence of underweight children below the age of five. As regards the MDG, the developing regions, as a whole, have almost reached the target. The under-nourished population of the world, in 1990–1992, was about one billion. This had to be brought down to 515 million. However, as a substantial number of these persons were freed from hunger, the world population also grew, and the number of hungry people stood at 750 million in 2015.India’s food security issues date back many years to the time of colonial rule, and are complex, involving problems of production, distribution, storage and dietary mix. They have immense ramifications for the nation’s health indicators and economic development, which can also impinge on national security. This article attempts to briefly trace the genesis of the problem, outline the strategies undertaken by the Indian State to tackle it, highlight various issues related to food security that have figured in the recent public discourse and also explain the response of the State to address the present problems.
Agriculture has been the backbone of the Indian economy, and even today it accounts for 54.6 per cent of the total employment in India. As a share of the GDP, agriculture has declined from 15.2 per cent to 13.9 per cent in previous years. Indian agriculture has been beset with problems since the colonial era. The policies of the British aimed at extracting the maximum possible revenue from the farmers and paid scant attention to improving the agricultural productivity. The Permanent Settlement of 1793 created a new class of landlords and sub-agents who were far removed from the cultivators and interested only in maximising rents for themselves and their colonial masters. The destruction of traditional handicrafts by the British forced several artisans into agriculture for a living. This increased the pressure on land, reduced productivity and impoverished the cultivators and led to food shortages and several protests against the British.
Independent India has overcome the problems of famines and mass deaths due to starvation, thanks to the focus given to agriculture, mainly, in the production of cereals. Today, the country produces 104 million tons of rice and 93 million tons of wheat annually, which is more than sufficient to meet the requirements of a widespread Public Distribution System (PDS), distributing cereals at highly subsidised prices. The Public Distribution System, which was initially started as a system to manage food scarcity in the 1940s, has evolved into a system for the distribution of food grains at affordable prices, and is an important part of the government’s policy for food management. Households that fell below the poverty line were given the opportunity to purchase up to ten kilograms of subsidised cereals (mostly wheat and rice) per month. The main objectives of PDS were; the procurement of food grains from the farmers at remunerative prices, the distribution of food grains to the consumers, particularly, the vulnerable sections of society, at affordable prices and, the maintenance of food buffers for food security and price stability. The PDS is supplemental in nature, i.e. it is not intended to make available the entire requirement of any commodity distributed to a household. The PDS is operated as a joint responsibility of the state and central governments. The central government, through the Food Corporation of India (FCI), has the responsibility for the procurement, storage, transportation and the bulk allocation of food grains to the state governments.
The Food Corporation of India was setup under the Food Corporation Act 1964, in order to fulfil following objectives of the Food Policy:
According to a Food and Agriculture Organization Policy Brief prepared in 2006, food security is achieved ‘when all people, at all times, have physical, social, and economic access to sufficient, safe, and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life. India achieved self-sufficiency in food grains in the 1970s. Since the mid-1990s it has consistently been able to ensure that there is enough food (in terms of calories) available to feed its entire population. It is the world’s largest producer of milk, pulses and millets, and the second-largest producer of rice, wheat, sugarcane, groundnuts, vegetables, fruit and cotton. Annual grain production has also remained relatively stable, with a decline in production between 2014 and 2016 caused by drought. The government procures some of that grain for distribution to the poor. India’s attachment to that food security programme is one of the impediments to further progress in the World Trade Organization’s Doha Development Round. In 2018-19 it plans to purchase a record 35 million tonnes of wheat, which is more than can be stored in government-owned facilities. If the grain is improperly stored, in facilities that fail to provide protection from pests or water, a lot of it will be wasted. Some of the grain in government-operated storage facilities is already wasted due to poor practices. It is estimated that about 62,000 tonnes of stored grain, mainly rice and wheat, were damaged between 2011 and 2017 due to lack of proper storage conditions thereby increasing pest infestations and exposure to rain.
In 2013, the Indian Government passed the National Food Security Act (NFSA), which specifies that all Indians have the right to food security. The legislation allows eligible households to purchase up to five kilograms of cereals per person, at even lower prices than before (three rupees per kilogram of rice, two rupees per kilogram of wheat and one rupee per kilogram of coarse grains – one Indian rupee is equal to $0.20).Under the scheme, the Indian Government purchases food grains at a Minimum Support Price, which is designed to financially support farmers up to one-third of India’s wheat and 15 per cent of its rice output are bought by the government each year. That grain is then distributed to Fair Price Shops, where ration card holders can buy subsidised food. The NFSA is one of the world’s largest social security programmes and 810 million Indians are eligible to purchase the food that it provides. Various indicators of nutrition in India however suggest that it has failed to achieve adequate rates of food security. For example, 36 per cent of children under the age of five are underweight (too light for their age) and 21 per cent are wasted (too light for their height). Vitamin deficiencies are common in India, with 75 per cent of the population not getting enough from their food intake. Rates of anaemia are also high, as 51 per cent of women of reproductive age have low levels of iron. While poverty and wealth inequality are often identified as major causes of food insecurity, they appear to play less of a role in South Asia.
To be continued...
(Author is Advisor to Government of Madhya Pradesh, Public Food Systems and Consumers Affairs, AIGGPA, Bhopal)