Agricultural workers threshing rice near Sangrur in Punjab.
Flickr / Neil Palmer (CIAT)
Agricultural workers threshing rice near Sangrur in Punjab. Flickr / Neil Palmer (CIAT)

Ambitious agenda for food security

The 2013 Food Security Act is far-reaching in addressing hunger and malnutrition but comes up short in key areas due to the broader policymaking context.

The National Food Security Act is one of the most prominent pieces of legislation passed by the Indian Parliament in recent times. The passage of the Act is the culmination of a long process that started with the case filed by the People's Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) in April 2001, which pointed out the general need to recognise the right to food as flowing from the right to life enshrined in the Indian Constitution. Notwithstanding the numerous valid criticisms that have been levelled against the Act, it is an important piece of legislation directed against the twin curses of hunger and malnutrition that still plague India. But before weighing the merits, it is worth asking why the Act is actually needed at all? And, what is different about this new legislation?

Hunger and malnutrition statistics in India leave little doubt about the need for drastic measures. In the 2013 Global Hunger Index, India is ranked 63rd out of 78 countries. The Hunger and Malnutrition (HUNGaMA) Report 2012 that covered 112 districts across some of the poorest states in the country estimated that 42 percent of the children below five years of age were moderately or severely underweight. The India State Hunger Index rated 14 states in 2008, and placed 12 in the 'Alarming' category and one in the 'Very Alarming' category. India is also home to an overwhelming number of underweight and stunted children and anaemic women according to the National Family Health Survey-III. All these statistics point to the need for strong measures to combat hunger and malnutrition.

Significantly, the Act recognises food as a legal entitlement of the people; and in cases where people are unable to realise this entitlement, it provides redress mechanisms at different levels, in the form of District Grievance Redressal Offices and State Food Commissions. Marking another first, the Act brings myriad government programmes, such as the Public Distribution System (PDS) that comes under the Ministry of Food and Civil Supplies, the Mid-Day Meal programme vested with the Ministry of Education, and the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) administered by the Ministry of Women and Child Development, under one umbrella, governed by a single piece of legislation and subject to a common redress mechanism.

Further analysis reveals several laudable provisions in the Act. Section 1(5) includes millets in the definition of food grains. Millets, referred to as coarse cereals in official parlance, are nutritionally superior to rice and wheat in terms of proteins, minerals, fibre and micro-nutrients; and if supplied properly as per the Act, they have the potential to make a serious dent on rural malnutrition. The introduction of millets in government food programmes would also come as a boost to millet farmers; if assured procurement, the necessary infrastructure for storage and distribution, and a beneficial minimum support price, there is a strong likelihood that more farmers would be willing to take up millet farming.

Another salutary feature of the Act is that it includes provisions for enhancing food and nutritional availability to specific population segments. Sections 4, 5 and 6 talk about providing nutrition to pregnant and lactating women, children and malnourished children, respectively. Pregnant and lactating women are provided with meals free of charge during pregnancy and six months after the child birth. They are additionally entitled to a maternity benefit of at least INR 6000 (likely during the entire course of pregnancy, although this is not clarified in the Act). In the case of children, appropriate cooked meals will be supplied through Anganwadi (rural health) centres or through the Mid-Day Meal programme, free of charge, every day except during school holidays. In the same vein, children with malnutrition are to be identified by the Anganwadi centres and provided with free meals until they attain the nutritional standards mentioned in Schedule II of the Act. All these are a step forward in addressing issues like child malnutrition and maternal mortality and morbidity by targeting especially vulnerable population groups.

Reforming the PDS is an important aspect of the Act. Section 12(2)(g) calls for supporting local public distribution models and grain banks. If adequately grounded, this could help in decentralising food distribution in India. Another important reform suggested is the diversification of commodities. Exactly what this entails is not mentioned; presumably it will include food products other than just cereals and sugar, such as pulses and oilseeds. Again, if implemented, this would be a significant step in enabling the poor to access a balanced diet and would also help farmers growing these crops get a decent price for their produce.

The Act talks about inviting local institutions like Panchayati Raj organisations, self-help groups and women's federations to come forward and take charge of fair price shops. This is a departure from the current situation where entrepreneurs are asked to bid for the right to run a fair price shop, and has the potential to infuse the operations of these shops with greater transparency and accountability. 

The creation of storage facilities at the district and block levels is another crucial provision. This would help in reducing the 'food miles' or the distance between farm gates and consumers' plates, and could potentially lead to a reduction in losses due to spoilage and pilfering. However, checks have to be put in place to ensure that the creation of storage facilities does not become yet another avenue for private contractors to step in. These storage facilities should ideally be created in close consultation with the members of rural communities, and the management of these storage facilities should be vested with these communities.

Manufactured debates

In light of the provisions mentioned above, the Act is a welcome move in the fight against hunger and malnutrition. However, there are severe shortcomings imposed by the larger policy environment, and these shortcomings offset, to a great extent, its many positives. The legislation should be critiqued against the backdrop of broader economic processes that have crippled Indian agriculture, which needs to serve as the underpinning of any Food Security Act in India. However, before going into these criticisms, it must be pointed out that the discussions on the Act in the mainstream media, for the most part, have been in poor taste.

Two arguments against the legislation that surfaced in the run up to and in the aftermath of its passage were that (1) the National Food Security Act would place a lot of strain on the national exchequer and might widen the current account deficit (CAD) and (2) that the availability of cheap food under the Act would make the poor lazy. Both of these arguments are flawed and need to be countered. First, regarding the Act’s financial unviability, it is estimated that the Act would cost the national exchequer about INR 125,000 crores. However, the food subsidy stands at about INR 90,000 crores at present, and these food subsidies would be brought within the ambit of the Act. This implies an additional allocation of only INR 35,000 crores. With a total Gross Domestic Product of INR 55 trillion in 2012-13 (at 2004-05 constant prices, as per Ministry of Finance), if India cannot spare a mere two percent of total GDP for some of the poorest and most malnourished people on the planet, there is something fundamentally wrong with its priorities. 

The second criticism, and one that featured in many popular TV debates by well-known free market proponents, is that the Act will make the poor lazy. However, these spokespersons of the free market conveniently ignore the huge doles to the rich in the form of tax holidays and exemptions. As per the data from the Ministry of Finance, in 2011-12, the revenue forgone by the government of India stood at a staggering INR 500,000 crores. The items that fall under the category of revenue forgone include customs duty, direct corporate tax, and export promotion concessions to name a few. These items largely impact the top quartile of the Indian population. If this largesse has not made the rich lazy, there is no reason to think that a Food Security Act should make the poor of India lazy. Such an argument only reflects the fact that a certain segment of the Indian populace has become completely insulated from the harsh realities faced by the poor. In a country like India, with its high incidence of poverty and where the gulf between the rich and the poor is rapidly widening, the State should strive to enhance peoples’ capabilities by enabling them to access affordable and nutritious food.

Limits of legislationAside from these shallow arguments, other critiques of the Act are worth taking seriously. The first is that the Act stops short of making food a fundamental right. Doing so would have made it constitutionally obligatory for the government to ensure that everybody in India has access to nutritious food. Unfortunately the Act avoids even mentioning the phrase ‘right to food’. Therefore, while during the debates surrounding the legislation the government made it appear that the Act promotes the right to food, in reality it is another example of the welfare-oriented approach that the Indian State has adopted over the decades, particularly with respect to food security and issues of rural poverty. To elucidate this further, the legislation only talks about providing a certain quantity of food to the poor and creates a redress mechanism in case the State fails to deliver on its promise. But the Act does not even talk about the need to create an enabling environment wherein the poor, especially the rural poor, can enhance their own capacities to produce food or to access food that is locally produced. The legislation does not go beyond the conventional understanding of food security, wherein the State provides the food that it deems fit for the poor, or consider decentralised agricultural and food systems that allow people greater decision-making about what they are able to eat, what crops to grow and how to grow them.

At a deeper level, the Act is detached from the realities confronting Indian agriculture. The legislation includes coarse cereals in the definition of food grains, thus paving the way for the procurement of these important food grains. However, no thought has been spared on how the cultivation of these cereals will be encouraged, what steps will be taken to bring farmers back to these crops, and what model of farming will be followed in order to revive them.

Ministry of Agriculture data for 2011-12 shows a 40 percent decline in the area under millet cultivation, since the 1960s. There are several reasons for the stagnation or decline in the crops that were, for generations, the bulwark of dry land agriculture in India. The Green Revolution, which made India self-sufficient with respect to cereals, focused mainly on two crops, rice and wheat. These crops attracted a host of incentives, including a strong minimum support price, regular bonuses for farmers, subsidies for fertilisers and pesticides and an assured procurement by the State, all of which were absent in the case of millets and pulses. Even in the dry land regions, the push has been toward paddy and wheat cultivation. The Green Revolution technologies that worked well initially were grounded in rainfed and irrigated pockets like Punjab and Haryana. Pursuing them in dry land areas has had severe ecological effects and has made food cultivation more expensive.

As a result, millets, which were the predominant crops in the dry land areas have become marginalised and replaced by rice, wheat and maize and also by commercial crops like soybean, sugarcane and cotton. These crops are water-intensive and demand a high use of chemical inputs. This shift in cropping patterns has had severe ecological implications, including the depletion of groundwater resources and the pollution of soils and water bodies due to excessive use of chemical inputs. Also, it has made farmers increasingly dependent on markets for all their agricultural inputs and has resulted in an unprecedented rise in the costs of cultivation. The need for instant cash with which to meet the growing costs of living – especially with respect to health, education, debt servicing, etc. – is pushing many farmers to adopt input-intensive agriculture and give up millet-based farming systems, which do not generate as much cash as the former. The Act is being introduced in this complex milieu.

The next critique flows from the aforementioned point; agriculture is one of the least remunerative occupations in India today.  Analysts like P Sainath, Utsa Patnaik and others have pointed out that farmers are finding it extremely difficult to carry on with agriculture. The last large-scale survey that looked at the income of farming households was the National Sample Survey 59th Round conducted in 2003. This survey indicates that the average annual income of the farmers in India stood at about INR 25,000, or a little over INR 2000 per month, and the monthly per capita expenditure of farming households was a paltry INR 503, most of which went towards meeting food expenses, leaving very little for savings. An assessment by T N Prakash Kammardi in The Hindu Business Line indicates the dismal state of farmers in the state of Karnataka. Looking at 2009-10 data on 19 principal crops, Kammardi finds that 14 did not result in any surplus. Barring red gram and some cash crops, all the other crops resulted in a net loss for the farmer. Furthermore, except for a few cash crops, the minimum support price extended to the various crops did not even cover the cost of production. While the analysis focused on Karnataka, it is a reflection of the situation confronted by farmers in the rest of the country. Thus, as Vijay Jawandia of Shetkari Sanghatana put it during a meeting, “We are concerned about food security without really looking into food producers’ security.”

It is only the farmer who is not assured of a minimum income. As P Sainath says, the people who produce our food are less and less in a position to afford it for themselves and their families. This, coupled with the indebtedness of farming households in India, is the cornerstone of the farm crisis that has come to grip the Indian countryside, a crisis manifested in the more than 250,000 farmers’ suicides across India since 1995. This is a major bottleneck for the Act. How can this kind of legislation succeed if the people who produce food are in the throes of a crisis and their livelihoods are not secure? Unless measures are taken to improve incomes of farming households and incentivise production of food grains, especially dry land crops like millets, pulses, oilseeds and dry land paddy, the Food Security Act will not stop the process of farmers being pushed out of agriculture. Such a scenario can only benefit agri-business corporations, which are looking to establish a greater foothold in India’s food production.

The next shortcoming is that the Act lays down uniform nutritional standards for children and pregnant women across the country, and does not account for the fact that different regions might have different nutritional demands; those living in hilly regions, desert, undulating terrain and so on might require higher nutritional intake. A more nuanced specification of the nutritional requirements is needed.

While food rights activists and some political parties among the Left have been demanding the universalisation of the PDS, the Act proposes a different type of targeting. It talks of priority and eligible households, amounting to 67 percent of the total population of India. While the central government will determine the extent of support provided to each of the states, it is for the states to identify the households that would fall under the Antyodaya (‘poorest of the poor’) category and those who fall under the priority category. This means that effectively, there can be as many ways of identifying the priority households as the number of states in India, which will only complicate an already controversial mechanism for identifying the poor.

Additionally, the Act does not talk about fixing the logistical problems in the distribution of food. In 2011, Food Minister K V Thomas stated that nearly 100,000 tonnes of food grains were lost to spoilage for the year. Yet, the need to fix the supply and storage problems of PDS is not mentioned. A key problem with the PDS is the inability to reach out to villages in the last mile. While the Act talks about working towards local distribution systems, the idea is not fleshed out. The challenge lies in realising this provision on the ground. Until that happens, the logistical challenges that have plagued the government food programmes will remain.

Two specific provisions in the Act are cause for serious concern. The first deals with providing wheat flour in case cereals are not available. With the kind of cereal production that India has clocked over the last four decades, the question of availability is frankly redundant. It is only a matter of having the will to procure and channel the grains into PDS.

The other disconcerting aspect is the talk of moving towards cash transfer. Doing so would absolve the Indian state of the responsibility for providing food to the poor and supporting food cultivation by extending the various incentives that have been discussed above. This move works in the favour of agri-food companies that would sell food to the needy and supply seeds and other agri-inputs to the farmers producing food.

Dominant decision-makersThe fact is that today, the larger policy environment is stacked against the ‘rural’ and the ‘agricultural’ and in favour of the ‘urban’ and the ‘industrial’. One of the biggest factors behind the challenges facing Indian agriculture today is the highly centralised nature of agricultural policymaking in India. What crops should be supported by the government and to what extent is decided by the various departments of agriculture at the state level or the Ministry of Agriculture at the central level. These decisions are made with very little input from farmers themselves. Extending special incentives to farmers for various crops, distributing free seeds, and providing free input and seed kits under various programmes are all decisions made by the agricultural departments in various states; these incentives play a major role in determining the crops that farmers are likely to veer towards in a given year.

The other layer of decision-making occurs far away in the conference rooms of international agencies like the World Trade Organisation (WTO). In 1995, India signed the WTO Agreement, and subsequently, dismantled the Quantitative Restrictions that governed the import and export of agricultural produce. The years since have seen greater liberalisation of trade in agricultural produce. Consequently, cropping patterns are determined by what global markets want and not what local communities need. A case in point is the crisis faced by coffee farmers in India. Volatility in the global coffee market, for example due to frost or worker strikes in Brazil, has led to booms followed by busts that have adversely affected coffee growers in Kerala. Not surprisingly, this situation has contributed to a spate of farmer suicides. Another example is that the minimum support price offered to Indian farmers has to meet the approval of the WTO, as must the Food Security Act, which currently violates certain commitments to the international trade body. Thus, notwithstanding the alarming hunger and malnutrition statistics of India and the numerous strictures passed by the apex court, India cannot provide for some of the poorest people on the planet without the approval of the WTO. This is an insidious and yet invisible form of centralisation. 

Proposed legislation like the Biotechnology Regulatory Authority of India (BRAI) Bill and The Seed Bill suggest, in the coming years, a continuation of policymaking along the aforementioned lines. These bills are heavily loaded in favour of agri-tech industry and relegate local communities to advisory positions. They vest real decision-making power with government bodies and corporate houses, and propose to create centralised structures that would decide whether a given technology is safe or not, what kind of seeds would be released into the market, and how much information would be made available in the public domain. While such legislation is couched in mostly conciliatory tones when it comes to farmers, they only serve to undermine the interests of the farmers. This is one of the reasons why the Food Security Act may be an exercise in tokenism.

A related point is the growing connections between the government and private enterprises. Various programmes of the government which entail the distribution of seeds, pesticides, fertilisers and so on, involve procuring huge quantities of agri-inputs from private enterprise. A handful of companies like Monsanto, Cargill, and Bayer to name a few exercise significant control of global agri-business and have stakes in all aspects of agriculture through a dizzying series of cross-holdings. With India eagerly embracing these companies, chances are that the interests of Indian farmers will be sacrificed upon the altar of ‘development’ and ‘technology upgradation’. This is the larger reality within which the Food Security Act is situated. If the needs of farmers are not given precedence over and above private, commercial interests, India will have squandered a golden opportunity to use the Food Security Act to address serious problems facing those who produce our food.

~ Sandeep Kandicuppa is a Program Coordinator with the Deccan Development Society based in Andhra Pradesh.

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