Food: Too much? Maybe, too little

A country that lags behind even Bangladesh in mortality rates also witnesses staunch opposition to food security. Why is food a black and white issue?



After four years of discussion around a National Food Security Act, the Bill was hurriedly passed as an Ordinance by the Cabinet (later ratified by the President of India) this July. The response to the Ordinance has been mixed. On one side, we see Congress governments such as in Delhi and Rajasthan rushing to identify beneficiaries and put systems in place in the shortest time possible so that they can begin to implement the provisions of the Ordinance any which way and reap electoral benefits when they face Assembly elections in a few months time. On the other, there is a loud voice in the media that continues to argue that not only is the NFSO a waste of resources as large leakages in any government programme are inevitable (contrary to all evidence of a revival of the PDS and decreasing leakages over the last ten years) but also that there is no need for such an intervention because there are not many people who are hungry and in need of the Act in the first place.

In this din, there are also some voices of activists and academics who have been campaigning and researching this legislation for years, which are trying to bring some sanity to the debate. They have been trying to point out the need for a comprehensive legislation in the face of widespread hunger and malnutrition in the country. They have also been arguing that the expenditure required to meet the entitlements promised under the Ordinance is well within the realm of possibility and must in fact be seen as an investment in contributing to a healthy and productive population. Why is it that there is no protest when thousands of crores of revenue are forgone to help the corporate sector; but just as the government even announces an intention to do something for the poor we see all kinds of forces coming together to build arguments against it? Some have said that there is no hunger at all, definitely not to the extent that it requires such a massive programme. Others, that such a large investment would destroy the economy.


Do we need a Food Security Legislation?

The TV channel Times Now had a scroll; which was repeatedly also read out by its lead anchor, that only 2% of India’s population is hungry. And so, what is the need for such an expansive programme as the Public Distribution System (PDS) (which provides subsidised foodgrains) and an Ordinance to legalise it? This is a misleading figure based on a faulty question in the NSS surveys. Most people do not even respond to the question. The costs of the NFSO have been highly inflated by different economists who then argue how it will ruin the economy (for e.g. see Surjit Bhalla in the Indian Express). The additional expenditure on the food subsidy is about Rs. 25,000 crores (0.25% of the GDP) which we can surely afford considering that the country has been witnessing decent growth rates. To address the fiscal deficit, what is needed is to improve the revenue of the government. India after all has one of the lowest tax-GDP ratios in the world. There is also a lot of scope to improve revenue collection, within the existing tax regime.

Some columnists have suggested that it is the activists and those working on rights-based legislations who are destroying the economy by asking for more and more ‘rights’. “We`ll keep caring for poor people until our money totally runs out, the nation gets bankrupt, inflation is out of control and there are no more jobs” (sic) says Chetan Bhagat in an article in the Times of India (‘Pro-poor or pro-poverty?’ 12 July 2013). “Personally, I would like a Right to Pork Vindaloo. And since it’s best to have a balanced diet, we will need a Right to a Three-Course Meal” (sic) says Manas Chakravarty while mocking the NFSO in his article in the Hindustan Times (‘A cocktail of rights’, July 14, 2013). In a country where every second child is malnourished and almost 70% of women are anaemic, if this is not reflective of middle class apathy then what is?

Let us look at some other statistics. In their book, An Uncertain Glory: India and its Contradictions, Jean Drèze and Amartya Sen show how India is lagging behind Bangladesh in many of its human development indicators even though Bangladesh has a per capita income that is around half that of India’s. The infant mortality rate in India is 47 deaths per 1000 births, whereas it is 37 in Bangladesh. The female literacy rate for those in the 15-24 age group in Bangladesh is 78% while it is 74% in India. While 55% of households in India practise open defecation due to lack of sanitation facilities, only 8.4% in Bangladesh are faced with a similar situation.

A recent field survey in Madhya Pradesh that I was a part of, showed that people’s diets largely consist of cereals with very little access to pulses, oil, vegetables, milk etc. While there is a decline in poverty ratios, the NSS surveys have also been showing falling calorie consumption amongst most classes, including the poor. About 60% of the poor’s monthly expenditure is on food, leaving them with very little for other necessities. In such a context, schemes such as the PDS and school meals can make a very meaningful contribution to poor’s lives. For instance, children who barely saw an egg in a couple of months are now getting to eat two or three eggs a week under the mid day meal scheme in many states. Where the PDS is working well, people are able to buy 20kgs to 35kgs of foodgrains at very low prices every month. This gives them the basic security of there being some food available in the household even on days when they do not find work. An analysis of the NSS data by JNU economists Abhijit Sen and Himanshu shows that these schemes have much to contribute to the much celebrated decline in poverty (up to 40% of the decline can be explained by these schemes). In fact, MGNREGA and PDS were also credited with cushioning the poor from facing the brunt of the global recession. The impact of these schemes/entitlements cannot be undermined.


The NFSO – a modest beginning

By making these schemes legal entitlements by enacting a law, they can be made more accountable, cannot be withdrawn easily and some minimum budgets can be ensured. It was after all a Supreme Court order in 2001 that made hot cooked meals a possibility for all children across the country or the setting up of anganwadis in every village to cater to children below six years of age. Until then, these were just schemes implemented in some parts of the country. Once they become a legal entitlement there is potential for the law to be used as a tool to demand for better services. However, as we know from the experience of the Supreme Court case, this does not happen automatically. It requires collective action. Further, it also requires mechanisms for transparency, accountability and grievance redressal in place, which unfortunately have not been given due attention in the NFSO.

The Right to Food campaign has been demanding for a comprehensive law which includes procurement, storage and distribution through a decentralised, strengthened and universal PDS, universal nutrition services for children, special provisions such as community kitchens in urban areas, provision of cooked meals for the destitute persons, social security pensions for the aged and strong grievance redressal and monitoring mechanism. Along with this, it has been arguing that it is important to understand food security in the context of declining agriculture, vulnerable livelihoods, displacement and people’s declining access to natural resources.

Although the NFSO moves away from a targeted PDS which is based on an APL-BPL division that is fraught with inclusion and exclusion errors, it does not go the whole way and universalise the PDS. While the proposed system of excluding the rich and covering the rest of the population with uniform entitlements is better than the current one where quotas are set based on poverty ratios, the NFSO is limited because it does not define clear exclusion criteria but sets the extent of coverage at an arbitrary 75% in rural areas and 50% in urban areas. Further, to have a greater impact on nutrition the PDS should have included pulses and cooking oil.

Earlier drafts of the food bill had proposed interventions such as community kitchens in urban areas, free meals for the destitute, a protocol for assisting households and communities living with starvation and portability of entitlements for migrants. Unfortunately, these have all been removed from the Ordinance. The Ordinance also does not address issues related to procurement or support to farmers for production.


Children must be central

It is well accepted that interventions to address malnutrition must lay special focus on children, especially children under two years of age. Much of the malnutrition that sets in during early childhood is irreversible. It is shameful that India has one of the highest rates of child undernutrition in the world. In fact it is high levels of child malnutrition that puts India at the bottom of the list in measures like the Global Hunger Index (rank 67 out of 84 countries).

Reducing child malnutrition requires a range of services including maternity entitlements, crèches, breastfeeding support, supplementary nutrition, counselling towards appropriate infant and young child feeding practices, care of the malnourished, access to health care, water and sanitation. This would at the very least require universalisation with quality of the ICDS, introduction of universal and unconditional maternity entitlements and diverse and flexible models of child care based on the need of working mothers. Given the widespread nature of malnutrition in the country, it is imperative that all these programmes are designed for universal coverage. It has been estimated that all of this put together would cost about Rs. 50,000 crores per year or about 0.5% of GDP.

With such unacceptably high levels of child malnutrition there need be no further explanations to justify such expenditure. However, for those who are still sceptical, there are also compelling economic reasons to invest whatever is required for eradicating malnutrition. Reducing child malnutrition not only contributes to higher productivity and therefore economic growth in the future through healthier populations but also leads to savings of health care costs that arise from malnutrition and future health benefits. While it is difficult to put a number to the benefits of appropriate child growth and development, some estimates indicate that the losses to GDP from various components of undernutrition can be as high as 3 percent of national income.

The NFSO only provides for supplementary nutrition for children without any improvements over what is currently given and does not include anything else. It does provide for a universal maternity entitlement which is a very positive intervention. Through this, the government recognises the right of the child less than six months of age to breastfeeding and gives value to mothers’ care work, who have to take off from work in order to be able to breastfeed exclusively. While women in the organised sector get paid leave for six months, the maternity entitlements which are basically for women in the unorganised sector would have been fair if they were at least linked to minimum wages. However, they have been set at an amount of only Rs. 1000 per month for six months.


Strengthen through Public Action

While it is disheartening that the NFSO has not made use of this opportunity to make a radical change in food policy towards eliminating hunger and malnutrition, on the other hand, it does have the potential to substantially improve the PDS in many states. For this, transparent and objective exclusion criteria must first be put in place. Reforms in the PDS must be initiated so that leakages are minimised. So far, the response of state governments has either been lacklustre or in cases where there are impending Assembly elections they are acting in haste attempting to roll out the provisions of the Ordinance immediately. The challenge for the civil society therefore is to continue to put pressure for more comprehensive interventions while ensuring that whatever little has been gained actually reaches people.


The writer is an independent researcher and activist working on food, nutrition and public health issues.

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