“There are people in the world so hungry, that God cannot appear to them except in the form of bread” -Mahatma Gandhi
Every day, there are thousands of households who do not get a square meal. Their children die from common illness like diarrhoea and pneumonia due to stunting and wasting, women and girls suffer from anaemia. The common reason for all the above conditions is the lack of secure and regular access to safe and nutritious food.
According to an estimate by FAO in ‘The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World, 2019’ report, around 194 million people are undernourished in India, 51% women (between 15 to 49 years) are anaemic while 37.9% of under-five children are stunted. Such a report makes it important for India to plan a sustainable roadmap for ensuring its food security.
India is a country of more than 1.3 billion population with the aim of becoming a $5 trillion economy by 2024-25. In such a backdrop, food insecurity is not just a hindrance to the growth of human capital but also to the national wealth creation. Being a signatory of the Sustainable Development Goals, India aims for ‘Zero Hunger’ (Goal 2). The problem of India’s food insecurity is not a recent phenomenon. It can be traced back to the British colonial era when there were frequent droughts and famines, for instance, the Bengal famine of 1943.
The poor land revenue systems and low agricultural productivity were the major cause of such poor conditions. However, with the adoption of the green revolution in the 1960s, India became self-sufficient in food grains.
Achieving self-sufficiency in food grains was important for our country but is not sufficient enough. In PUCL vs. Union of India, 2001, the People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) filed a writ petition in the Supreme Court contending that the “Right to Food” is an essential part of Right to Life under Article 21 of the constitution. The SC issued several orders that included various schemes aimed at ensuring food security, as legal entitlements, thus reflecting food as a fundamental right.
To ensure access to food for its citizen, the government has announced different policies and programmes at different times. Some of the major steps under this are-First, the Minimum Support Price (MSP) promoting domestic production of food grains to meet the increasing demands of the population. Second, promotion and maintenance of buffer stocks and third, operation of Public Distribution System (PDS), to counteract any price volatility and food inflation during periods of shortages.
The World Food Summit of 1996 defined food security as existing “when all people at all times have physical, social and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life”. Going by this definition, food security has three dimensions: availability, accessibility and affordability of food. Let us look at each of these problems and how can we get over them in a sustainable manner.
Food has been made accessible through the subsidy given to the BPL members with the help of ration cards.
Although the NFSA has introduced many welcoming steps, the challenges in way of its success are many. One of the major problems is the Inclusion-Exclusion error.
Many non-poor people take undue advantage with the help of fake and duplicate ration cards while many eligible beneficiaries are unable to access their rations. Another issue is the leakage of food grains during transportation to and from the Fair Price Shops (FPS). To mend such errors, the government had introduced the Aadhar-based biometric authentication system.
A recent research published in National Bureau of Economic Research shows that there was no direct impact of Aadhaar in reducing leakages.
The digitalisation of ration cards for online verification of beneficiaries, computerization of FPS for quick and efficient tracking of transactions, use of GPS technology to track the movement of trucks carrying food grains and web-based citizens’ portal to register complaints and suggestions are some of the reforms that can overcome the challenges under TPDS.
Chhattisgarh and Tamil Nadu are some of the states that have already adopted most of these modern reforms.
Food security is not just about access to food in quantitative terms. We have a right to both nutritious as well as safe food.
In the present scenario where we have already achieved self-sufficiency of food grains, we need to look beyond wheat and rice provided under PDS and shift to a more diversified food basket which includes coarse grains. Several studies have suggested that such a dietary diversification helps in reducing iron deficiency and thus can prove to be fruitful in combating anaemia.
Although there are schemes to improve the nutritional level among the population the underutilisation of the funds pulls the leg. For instance, 32 states have utilised less than 50% of the funds released under the Poshan Abhiyan. In such a situation, the government must think over the reforms such as zero-based budgeting which will help in better utilisation and allocation of the resources.
Apart from focusing on nutritional fulfilment, there’s also a need to provide safer and healthier food to all. Unchecked use of pesticides and chemicals, increasing consumption of junk food are some of the major challenges. The FSSAI (the nodal agency for food safety and regulation in India) must work towards creating awareness among the masses about what makes a healthy diet, the importance of exercise and consumption of an appropriate amount of food. The recent uptrend in obesity and lifestyle diseases like diabetes, high blood pressure and cancer is a matter of concern.
Initiatives like RUCO (Repurpose Used Cooking Oil) is a positive step towards creating awareness to lessen the use of reused cooking oil. Efforts should be made to create awareness and encourage people to move from junk foods to superfoods that are rich in nutritional content.
The unaffordability of food in India is due to two broad reasons: first, poverty, leading to very less amount of disposable income and lesser awareness about nutritional diets. Social inequality leading to exclusion and marginalisation, illiteracy, unequal distribution of wealth and persistent corruption are some of the reasons pushing up the level of poverty in the society. The second reason is food inflation. Demand-supply mismatch, stockholding, speculations and perishable nature of these goods are some of the reasons for such inflation. According to the Economic Survey of 2019-20, there has been a divergence observed in four metropolitan cities reflecting the large difference between retail and wholesale prices. This causes regional disparities, affecting the poor in such regions, the most.
To resolve the various problems of food security, we must not limit ourselves only to the “food”. There are various areas where we need to work which will help in enhancing our efforts to achieve food security.
While fixing a problem, we tend to concentrate on just that specific issue while forgetting the various other dimensions revolving around it. These dimensions might be impacting the problem or getting impacted by the problem itself. Such is also the case of food security. There’s a need for a more holistic approach. There are various areas which have the direct or indirect impact of India’s food security and improving those areas which ultimately help India move from food insecurity to food security.
Better mechanisation of agriculture, use of smartphone apps for assessing crop health, better accessibility for crop insurance, online market for crop sale (e.g. Kisan Mandi) are the various ways to improve crop productivity, induce competitiveness among traders which in turn will provide better returns to farmers along with lowering down the food inflation. Incentivising farmers to move towards organic farming will help in improving the health of the population since organic foods are more nutritious, free from preservatives and pesticides.
Due to high levels of procurement, the Food Corporation of India (FCI) has to bear high costs of operation and maintenance of these buffer stocks. To lower the pressure on central pool storage capacities, we can go for decentralisation of PDS. That is to say, the states would directly procure and distribute the food grains on their own at the MSP decided by the centre. This would reduce transportation costs. Investment in the agricultural infrastructure will help in lowering down the crop prices while also generate employment opportunities to the poor.
According to the ‘Technology Vision 2035’, India needs to work on medium to long term goals to achieve sustainability in securing food for all. Some of the technologies and innovations have already been implemented in various states. Climate-Smart Agriculture, bio-fortification, nutrient-Smart agriculture, geo-tagging of agricultural assets like markets, cold storages, crop area- for real-time monitoring and e-NAM are some of the technology that will help in ensuring better availability and accessibility of cost-effective and nutrient-rich food.
Although it is the duty of the government to provide us with safe and healthy food, this should not make the citizens abstain themselves from being an equal stakeholder. Education can play a vital role in creating awareness about the nutritional value of the food we consume. Efforts should be made from the very local levels itself, such as community-level groups, civil societies and various Self-Help Groups.
The other backward linkages are the areas of environment, sanitation and hygiene. Food pollution or food contamination is detrimental to the health of the population. The effects of climate change on agricultural productivity, the problem of open defecation and people living in unhygienic areas like slums are some of the major hindrances for India’s achievement of food security.
Another area which needs immediate reforms is the administration. The proper implementation of the various welfare schemes for the poor is the responsibility of the administrative department. However, due to the corruption and lack of accountability, the goodness of the schemes remains on paper only. Reforms with the help of technology and digitalisation can help bring in more transparency and thereby, good governance.
Achieving food security will have a positive impact on various dimensions such as health, social inclusiveness and sustainable development. A healthy population means a healthy workforce thus contributing to increased economic productivity. There are many policies and schemes which, if implemented properly, can have a positive impact.
For instance, the ‘One Nation One Card’ can help the migrants to get the ration from anywhere within our country. This will bring competitiveness among the FPSs. The introduction of ‘Direct Cash Benefit’ on a pilot basis can also prove to be a positive step since it will reduce the administrative costs.
The way forward to India’s food security lies in the advancement of technology and innovations which will bring in transparency, traceability and speedy implementation.