Food in-security

"President signs the Food Security Bill"

This is a long overdue post. I have been trying to follow the debates, but this NDTV news flash I received just now inspired me to finally write. Enough and more has been said about food security in the last few weeks, especially after the bill got introduced midst the political drama. Some are dozing about details of the bill, others about the instigation behind the timing. But everyone has an opinion. And I guess, so do I.

Rights Based Approach. ‘Roti Kapda aur Makaan‘ are basic requirements for a dignified life, and everyone has a right to live so. There is no denying that. But whether this ordinance is the instrument to assure this, is the question. The recognition of this as a right has been much awaited indeed, but is the rights based approach entirely feasible? We have seen many examples where galvanised efforts of people have transformed the imaginations of our systems such as with the recent Street Vendors Bill, and others like MGNREG Act, RTI Act, right to education, et al. But the resulting ‘transformations’ are admittedly varied within the spectrum. This particular moment could have offered an opportunity to people, especially those who are far removed from the policy making process and have the least access to resources, to finally get access to the basic right to food. But if only a promise to an entitlement would match the needs for actual provisions. I have my reservations that I’d like to share, and why I feel this approach may not necessarily be enough.

Mismatched Demand and Supply. Whereas the act has increased the demand, by giving two-thirds of the population legal entitlement to highly subsidized food grains, it has taken almost no measures to address the lag in food supply. There are no measures for increasing food production – by subsidizing agricultural seeds and fertilizers, increasing access to better technology, improving storage facilities or incentivizing farming – none. With the mismatch of an increased demand and supply remaining at status quo, prices are bound to rise in the regular market. This would in turn increase incentives for blackmarketeers to gain greater profits by selling the PDS food grains outside. Even the clause where a compensation will be made in cash if food is not available at the PDS, may not work, since the amount of money may not actually be enough to match this market price, and the people might still go hungry. With all this, one can only hope that the situation doesn’t actually become worse than what it currently is.

Less farm labor at increased prices. While MG NREGA has certainly improved daily wages in both farming and non-farming sectors in the rural areas, it has also made it more unaffordable for small farmers to employ wage labour. While the increasing demand and prices maybe an incentive for farming, but it may still not match the non-remunerative prices for small and marginal farmers. Labour intensive crops like ragi, bajra and jowar, are getting most severely hit. These also have increasingly smaller markets now, and are thereby slowly going out of production.

Less Agricultural Land, More Urban Population. While food security is at the helm of discussions, the land acquisition bill and land pooling notifications that are simultaneously being concretised, are not getting as much news-space. While the food bill strongly depends on food production and agriculture – still primarily a rural activity – the latter intends to stimulate conversions of agricultural lands into urban areas. This conversion will be irrespective of the productivity and fertility of the soil, and be only contingent on the contiguity of the area with the urban agglomerate city. The incentives for this – conversion of land-use to residential/commercial/industrial, ‘growth’ and ‘development’ in a city, 4 times the market land value, et al. – seem to be much stronger than to stay in rural areas, even with whatever technological advances being made to improve food productivity per unit area and increase in food prices (unless they start matching land prices!). It’s not rocket science to deduce that this would only lead to reduced land for agriculture and thereby reduced food outputs, for an increased urban population.

Neither Quantity, Nor Quality is assured. Although the act claims “Pregnant women and lactating mothers will get a maternity benefit of Rs. 6,000 and pregnant women and children under 14 will get nutritious meals, with higher nutritional norms for malnourished children” , it doesn’t necessarily define nutritious. Besides, there is another danger of it being a central government scheme with a central distribution system – the regional autonomy to promote staple grains is reduced, and everyone, especially the marginalised, are forced to eat rice and wheat, despite their traditional food habits. Certainly, more needs to be researched on this aspect, and I don’t feel qualified enough to comment more, but yes, with the coming up of GM foods et al. this danger will continuously increase if not strictly regulated and monitored.

Challenges of Targeting. The debate around using BPL as a measure of poverty is already archaic, albeit with no better alternative still at hand. A large population that should get access to ration cards, is still struggling to get one. And making sure that only the deserving people get access, is yet another challenge. The PDS system, since independence, was always meant to be for universal access – and rich or poor all ate the same food. But the World Bank argued that this was increasing the burden of subsidies on the government, and converted this system to a targeted one. But in turn, the government is spending more and targeting wrong – the food subsidy bill was for Rs 2,500 crore in 1991. It was Rs 50,000 crore in 2012 and this year, it would be Rs 60,000 crore. (Reminds me of the mobile company (metro pcs?) case where they actually reduced majority of their costs by simply stopping call logs for billing, and thereby offered cheaper flat rates to everyone). Maybe we are spending more on targeting, than on food subsidy itself?!

No commitment to buying grains from Indian sources. Ordinance must be read with other policies that impact the livelihood of farmers and the right to food, like FDI in retail, changes in the State Ag­ri­cultural Produce Mar­keting (Regulation) Ac­ts, Seed policies, the Bio­technology Regulatory Act etc. which are all in the direction of economic “reform” and “promoting” agribusiness. Since the Act makes no commitment on where the food grains will be sourced from, to meet this new demand, the supply will obviously have to be matched from external sources and corporations – in turn buying at monopolistic higher prices, using more tax payers money. Although, no packed food is included in the provisions for children, pregnant women and lactating mothers, which at least secures some protection from the pro-profit / monopolising sellers / corporates. Besides, we shouldn’t forget the mass farmer suicides after the last round of reforms in this sector. Maybe there are more indigenous ways of promoting agriculture in the country, and use this as an opportunity to create a better and more sustainable market.

Near impossible timeline for implementation. It has been mandated that the National Food Security Ordinance needs to be implemented in the next 6 months by all states. Some states have shown stand-out, perhaps misplaced, bravado to implement this even sooner. While Fair Price Shops are being added to the distribution system, their viability and institutionalisation, what has to be done and how it has to be done, is not specified.

(I may add more on packaged food, security during disasters, the dysfunctional public health system, and similar policy examples from Thailand at a later stage) 

By the end of this, it may start looking hopeless, but that is not the case at all. There are ways and means to make amends and fill these gaps. Some are suggested here. I’m certain there are many more, and it may require a more rigorous research than this three hourly work. I will try my best to get back with a more optimistic perspective (soon enough!) Till then, go ahead and leave your comments 🙂


Bill approved by Lok Sabha :

Coverage :

Food Insecurity :

Rocky road to food security:

Rights Based Approach :

Food Security Bill :

Bill in Delhi :

Bill in three states :

Congress Bill :

Rice Bowl by Congress :

Challenges :

Tale of two bad Food Policies :

Govt. Willing to make amendments to the bill :

Food for Poor :

Battle about Beneficiaries :

Ration Cards :

Changes in Ration Card :

Adhaar Cards :

Insufficient farm labour :

Lack of storage space :

Financial Estimates :

Politics of Food :

No packed meal :

Nutrition :

Food During Disasters :

Dysfunctional Public Health System :

Similar Case as Water :

Other rights based approach – Street Vendors Bill :

Better Options :

IN FAVOUR OF THE BILL- Dipa Sinha the contributor to the bill:

In favor of the poor :


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