Food for all


A food security law will be meaningful only if it is based on universal food provision and ensures that every citizen’s nutritional needs are met.


At an outlet of the public distribution system in Erode, Tamil Nadu. States such as Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh have defined BPL in such an inclusive way that the vast majority of the population is included, which makes their food distribution schemes near-universal.

IT is not surprising that questions of food security and the right to food have become such urgent political issues in India today. The rapid growth of aggregate income over the past two decades has not addressed the basic issue of ensuring the food security of the population. Instead, nutrition indicators have stagnated and the per capita calorie consumption has actually declined, suggesting that the problem of hunger may have got worse rather than better.

Consider the evidence on nutritional outcomes from the most recent National Family Health Survey (NFHS), conducted in 2005-06. According to this, 46 per cent of children below three years are underweight; 33 per cent of women and 28 per cent of men have a body mass index (BMI) below normal; 79 per cent of children aged six to 35 months have anaemia, as do 56 per cent of married women aged 15-49 years and 24 per cent of married men in that age group; 58 per cent of pregnant women have anaemia. The national averages mask locational differences: all these indicators are much worse in rural India.

Further, these indicators have scarcely changed, or have changed very little, since the previous NFHS in 1998-99. In terms of calorie consumption, the picture is even worse. According to the National Sample Survey Organisation’s (NSSO) large survey of 2004-05, in the period from 1993-94 to 2004-05, the average daily intake of calories of the rural population dropped by 106 kilocalories (4.9 per cent), that is, from 2,153 kcal to 2,047 kcal, and that of the urban population dropped by 51 kcal (2.5 per cent), that is, from 2,071 to 2,020 kcal. The average daily intake of protein by the Indian population decreased from 60.2 to 57 grams in rural India between 1993-94 and 2004-05 and remained stable at around 57 grams in the urban areas during the same period.

Hunger index

The all-India averages do not capture the wide variation across States and even within States. For example, the India State Hunger Index 2008 (brought out by the International Food Policy Research Institute, or IFPRI) shows very large differences across 17 major States, ranging from 13.6 for Punjab to 30.9 for Madhya Pradesh. If these States could be compared with countries in the Global Hunger Index rankings, Punjab would rank 34th and Madhya Pradesh would rank 82nd. However, few Indian States perform well in relation to the global index. Even the best-performing Indian State, Punjab, lies below 33 other developing countries ranked by the Global Hunger Index. The worst-performing States in India have index scores that would be at the bottom of the global rankings: Bihar and Jharkhand rank lower than Zimbabwe and Haiti, and Madhya Pradesh falls between Ethiopia and Chad.

What is especially significant in the IFPRI index is that the indicators of hunger do not always correspond to poverty ratios. For example, the lower incidence of income poverty in Gujarat and Karnataka is associated with worse performance in terms of hunger – and this is confirmed by the calorie consumption data.

The recent rise in food prices in India is likely to have made matters much worse, and the effects of the global crisis on employment and livelihoods within the country are likely to cause further deterioration of people’s access to food. Clearly, therefore, food security is currently one of the most important policy areas, and demands stressing a rights-based approach to public food strategy have gained ground. This is what underlies the current discussion around the legislation on the right to food, which has been put in the 100-day agenda of the United Progressive Alliance government.
According to its most loose definition, food security prevails when the population does not live in hunger or fear of starvation. But recent definitions have been more stringent. According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), food security in a particular society exists “when all people, at all times, have access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life”.

Such a definition appears to be simple but is actually quite complex and begs many questions. What is “sufficient”? How is access to be determined and provided? To what extent must food preferences be taken into account? All these questions become even more important when food security is sought to be converted into a justiciable right.

It is evident that genuine food security among a population depends upon a wide range of factors, all or many of which are associated with the need for some public intervention. Ensuring adequate food supplies requires increases in agricultural productivity, possibly changes in cropping patterns, and certainly the sustained viability of cultivation. All these would be necessary at both local and national levels. Food can be accessed by all people only if they have the purchasing power to buy the necessary food, which means that employment, remuneration and livelihood issues are important. Social discrimination and exclusion still play unfortunately large roles in determining both the livelihood of and access to food by different social categories. This factor needs to be reckoned with.

Malnourishment is closely linked to poor sanitation and unhealthy practices. So providing clean drinking water, ensuring access to sanitation facilities and other basic amenities and imparting knowledge about correct or desirable eating habits are all necessary. Child malnutrition in India tends to be the worst at the age of five to 11 months, which suggests that breastfeeding and weaning behaviour matter – and this highlights the need for society to educate mothers so as to enable them to continue breastfeeding and to shift to appropriate solids when required.

Multi-pronged approach

Malnourished tribal children in Khammam district, Andhra Pradesh. In hierarchical and discriminatory societies such as India, making a scarce good (cheap food) supposedly available only to the poor is one of the easiest ways to reduce their access to it.

All these issues must be addressed if the rampant problem of undernutrition has to be dealt with. But, obviously, most of these cannot easily be translated into legal provisions. It is clear that a law, however well intentioned and carefully phrased, can only address some of the complex factors that determine food insecurity. It is important for the government to be aware of the need for a multi-pronged approach to the problem that has to extend beyond a legal promise if it is to be successful.

This does not mean that a food security law would be meaningless, far from it. In fact, by focussing on universal food access and assigning responsibility and culpability, a law would force the government at both Central and State levels to take up the entire gamut of issues, which relate not just to actual food distribution but also to its production and patterns of consumption, so as to eventually ensure genuine food security.

The key point here is that such a law must guarantee universal access. The dominant failing of drafts of the proposed legislation that have been circulating in various quarters is that they do not promise or even try to aim at universal food access. Instead, they tend to be obsessed with targeting food security at the below poverty line (BPL) population and some defined vulnerable groups. Some drafts have gone even further, suggesting that the non-BPL population be excluded entirely from public distribution.

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