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July 16, 2012

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July 16, 2012

Fighting for food security in India

July 16, 2012
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Biraj Swain (right) is Oxfam India’s Campaigns Manager and Co-Editor and author of the IDS-Oxfam India Special Bulletin “Standing on the BirajThreshold: Food Justice in India”, launched in Delhi this week

In India, over the past 15 years the debate about food, under a rights-based perspective, has become increasingly complex. Earlier concerns about famines, emergency relief and technology-driven green revolutions have given way to discussions on the state’s failure to deliver public distribution programs, the discriminatory biases these programs perpetuate, legal entitlements to land use and ownership by men and women farmers, climate change, domestic and international price volatility and the role of non-governmental and social actors – from the media to INGOs, farmer’s networks and social movements. In other words, the debate has shifted from starvation and subsistence to dignity and justice.

2001 saw the scandal of the country bursting at the seams with 60 million metric tonnes of food grains as starvation, death and distress migration afflicted six states of India. The People’s Union of Civil Liberties, one of the first groups to organize, sued the government, arguing that it must open its grain reserves to feed the hungry. The writ also demanded that the government provide jobs to people in drought-affected villages and support those who could not work.

Eventually, after over 150 judgments and interim orders, India’s Supreme Court agreed that the state was indeed responsible for providing nutrition and public health. The most persuasive argument to the court is that the right to food is directly related to the constitutional guarantee of a “Right to Life”. The court expanded the original writ – which covered Rajasthan only – to the entire country. When the government said it simply couldn’t afford to provide every citizen with the right to food, the court replied that lack of money was no excuse and even ordered the state to extend some of its local food programs.

Central India_MadhyaPradesh Nagender ChhikaraThe National Food Security Bill is an outcome of the 11 plus years of litigation, street protests and the continued media and public scrutiny of the Right to Food case by 2500+ civil society organisations and a trade union coalition called the Right to Campaign. In response to such pressure, the current government, when it came to power in 2009, made universalisation of food security one of its electoral promises. The draft bill was finally tabled in parliament on 22nd December 2011.  While much could be said about the omissions in the draft bill, it still marks a great step forward  and food rights champions hope that when it does get passed into legislation, it will be far more progressive and inclusive than its current avatar.

To discuss the background to this path-breaking legislation, 21 prominent authors and commentators have joined hands with Oxfam India and the Institute of Development Studies, Sussex to put together the special Bulletin ‘Standing on the Threshold: Food Justice in India’. This will be launched at a dedicated two-day event at New Delhi’s Constitution Club on the 17th and 18th of July.

From the father of India’s green revolution, MS Swaminathan, to public intellectual CP Chandrasekhar and Supreme Court Commissioners on Right to Food NC Saxema and Harsh Mander, the contributors agree that the approval of the National Food Security Bill is an important step forward for India, but a law, alone, can do little. India is still in the top 10 for child malnutrition, infant mortality and land grabbing – a gloomy picture produced by complex institutional failures, gaps in legal frameworks and a lack of political will at the central and state level as much as the weak monitoring mechanisms of existing public distribution programs.

If India’s second green revolution is to contribute to an accelerated reduction of poverty, hunger and malnutrition, it undoubtedly has to be a state-led project: far from being old-fashioned, the state’s pricing policies, legal entitlement system, public distribution and natural resource management programs are key to reaching the poorest of the poor. There are currently no quick-fix alternatives to a desirable good-quality universal Public Distribution System (PDS) and Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS). What’s more, the current food, nutrition and agriculture programmes are failing to tackle deep-seated discriminatory practices (in society as much as within state institutions), but rather re-inforcing them. Stronger, transparent monitoring by accountable state agencies is an absolute must.

If food security is about having certainty about the future, the common goal must also be that of a gendered growth in agriculture and IDS Bulletin Cover_Uttar Pradesh_Mustard_Nagender Chhikarafood security that gives the same rights on the land to men and women farmers. A complete halt on any new land acquisition is required until a way of calculating and compensating social, economic and environmental costs is in place, particularly with regards to tribal communities for whom the right to the land is still particularly uncertain. National mainstream media also have a crucial role to play: the most common references to food by them still revolves around restaurant reviews, food festivals and cooking and dieting (!) books.

Finally, India must realize that any global climate policy will be shaky without solid domestic foundations, reflecting the concerns of poor people, including farmers and fishermen, in India as elsewhere. In sum, putting access and equity at the heart of debates on climate, natural resources, institutional accountability and agriculture must be a priority. In this regard, India could play a pioneering role, as it has in areas such as the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme or the Right to Information legislation.

The future will belong to nations with grains and not guns. We have enough grains for all  – we need to open and expand our thinking on what can be done, and how to build a future where everyone on the planet always has enough to eat.

And edited version of this blog also appeared on the Guardian’s Poverty Matters site today


  1. Excellent piece, thank you. But surely the statement:
    “If India’s second green revolution is to contribute to an accelerated reduction of poverty, hunger and malnutrition, it undoubtedly has to be a state-led project”
    is (or should be) true of all ‘poverty alleviation’ attempts? It would be interesting to know why “the debate has shifted from starvation and subsistence to dignity and justice”… is it because of a change in circumstances or in the attitudes of those who seek to tackle poverty? I’m reminded of a quote I came across recently from Braizilian Archbishop Hélder Câmara who said “When I give food to the poor they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist.”

  2. Thanks for the article. I just wondered if you could comment on the new Bill that has been finalized, which has coverage that is near-universal(50% urban and 90% rural), yet exclusionary. Since we are addressing a Right to Food issue, shouldn’t the focus continue to be universal? Do you think this compromise is ideal?

  3. Yes universalisation should be the way forward, not just for not wasting resources on targetting inefficiencies and gate-keeping around the same but also for ensuring that social cohesion when the public service is used across classes and the ones with voice ensure that the service doesn’t degrade/degenrate.
    Besides statistics shows that in states like Tamil Nadu with near-universalised PDS, the leakage is less than 1% because people would self-select themselves out. We hear the government might universalise it or near-universalise the same with exclusion filters for the ultra-rich (as Jean Dreze has been arguing).

  4. In my opinion unification of gaps between the different segments of the society can be an underlying feature of food insecurity in India. From my experience of living in India for Four years I have come to know that gaps and the immense population paradigms have caused this food insecurity. Challenges are a’lot but with the population growth curve, there still much to be done to gain a positive measure in food security. In India many a families rely of their farming practices to live out their lives in such a country, it is just a matter of time when the threshold is reached where “severe food shortage will occur” given the growth of human habitats in sub urban and rural Areas.

  5. Dear Duncan, Biraj,

    There is an acute lack of reliable data about agricultural production, on real cost of cultivation, on rural and urban prices for food baskets in different regions of India, and on food inflation. The rights and allocations, entitlements and legislation issues are being well dealt with by Oxfam India and others concerned about food security. Yet I have found that the data structure that ought to guide and inform your efforts is ramshackle – especially the public domain data.

    I have been involved since 2009 with a programme of the National Agriculture Innovation Project (Ministry of Agriculture, ICAR, state agriculture universitiess, etc) on knowledge and ICT for cultivators and our extension system. India’s National Agricultural Research System, among the world’s largest and most thickly populated, does not approach the subject in any meaningful way.

    In India, we still look at states as the default division – with four states in the 80-110 million and one at 200 million population, versus several with populations under 2 million (the North-East and Goa). This is unnecessary when we compile data for the 640 districts, which are layered beneath 36 meteorological divisions and 60 agro-ecological sub-regions – the district must be the minimum default administrative level for reckoning development and ecological indices.

    However private sector does – and herein lies the gap between what is in the public domain that can be used to achieve food justice, and what is being shaped and collected for the food retail and processed foods industries, aided by commodity markets.

    I have dealt in a prefatory manner with the combination of some of these elements in a paper, published by Macroscan (Economic Research Foundation, New Delhi) earlier this year []. With a 2012 monsoon that began late, has been weak over peninsular and north-western India while raging over eastern India, the food security and agriculture production issues are now very serious concerns.

    But there is only so much we can do inside a data regime that is stingy and suspicious. Government cannot bring itself to open this up, and until we reach that level of cooperation between mechanisms of government and the public which allows free partnership, perhaps the only available option is networks of voluntary datamancers, for the cloud of subjects that worry us – food availability and crop production, watersheds and reservoirs, public health and household income.

    Regards, Rahul

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