[Reader-list] Reg: Set - 5

Rakesh Iyer rakesh.rnbdj at gmail.com
Wed Jun 23 21:58:19 IST 2010

Source: Frontline

Article Theme: Right to Food

Date: *Volume 26 - Issue 17 :: Aug. 15-28, 2009*

Link: http://www.hinduonnet.com/fline/fl2617/stories/20090828261713100.htm

Article Content:

*Food for all *


 * A food security law will be meaningful only if it is based on universal
food provision and ensures that every citizen’s nutritional needs are met.


IT is not surprising that questions of food security and the right to food
have become such urgent political issues in India today. The rapid growth of
aggregate income over the past two decades has not addressed the basic issue
of ensuring the food security of the population. Instead, nutrition
indicators have stagnated and the per capita calorie consumption has
actually declined, suggesting that the problem of hunger may have got worse
rather than better.

Consider the evidence on nutritional outcomes from the most recent National
Family Health Survey (NFHS), conducted in 2005-06. According to this, 46 per
cent of children below three years are underweight; 33 per cent of women and
28 per cent of men have a body mass index (BMI) below normal; 79 per cent of
children aged six to 35 months have anaemia, as do 56 per cent of married
women aged 15-49 years and 24 per cent of married men in that age group; 58
per cent of pregnant women have anaemia. The national averages mask
locational differences: all these indicators are much worse in rural India.

Further, these indicators have scarcely changed, or have changed very
little, since the previous NFHS in 1998-99. In terms of calorie consumption,
the picture is even worse. According to the National Sample Survey
Organisation’s (NSSO) large survey of 2004-05, in the period from 1993-94 to
2004-05, the average daily intake of calories of the rural population
dropped by 106 kilocalories (4.9 per cent), that is, from 2,153 kcal to
2,047 kcal, and that of the urban population dropped by 51 kcal (2.5 per
cent), that is, from 2,071 to 2,020 kcal. The average daily intake of
protein by the Indian population decreased from 60.2 to 57 grams in rural
India between 1993-94 and 2004-05 and remained stable at around 57 grams in
the urban areas during the same period.
 Hunger index

 The all-India averages do not capture the wide variation across States and
even within States. For example, the India State Hunger Index 2008 (brought
out by the International Food Policy Research Institute, or IFPRI) shows
very large differences across 17 major States, ranging from 13.6 for Punjab
to 30.9 for Madhya Pradesh. If these States could be compared with countries
in the Global Hunger Index rankings, Punjab would rank 34th and Madhya
Pradesh would rank 82nd. However, few Indian States perform well in relation
to the global index. Even the best-performing Indian State, Punjab, lies
below 33 other developing countries ranked by the Global Hunger Index. The
worst-performing States in India have index scores that would be at the
bottom of the global rankings: Bihar and Jharkhand rank lower than Zimbabwe
and Haiti, and Madhya Pradesh falls between Ethiopia and Chad.

What is especially significant in the IFPRI index is that the indicators of
hunger do not always correspond to poverty ratios. For example, the lower
incidence of income poverty in Gujarat and Karnataka is associated with
worse performance in terms of hunger – and this is confirmed by the calorie
consumption data.

The recent rise in food prices in India is likely to have made matters much
worse, and the effects of the global crisis on employment and livelihoods
within the country are likely to cause further deterioration of people’s
access to food. Clearly, therefore, food security is currently one of the
most important policy areas, and demands stressing a rights-based approach
to public food strategy have gained ground. This is what underlies the
current discussion around the legislation on the right to food, which has
been put in the 100-day agenda of the United Progressive Alliance

According to its most loose definition, food security prevails when the
population does not live in hunger or fear of starvation. But recent
definitions have been more stringent. According to the Food and Agriculture
Organisation (FAO), food security in a particular society exists “when all
people, at all times, have access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food to
meet their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy

Such a definition appears to be simple but is actually quite complex and
begs many questions. What is “sufficient”? How is access to be determined
and provided? To what extent must food preferences be taken into account?
All these questions become even more important when food security is sought
to be converted into a justiciable right.

It is evident that genuine food security among a population depends upon a
wide range of factors, all or many of which are associated with the need for
some public intervention. Ensuring adequate food supplies requires increases
in agricultural productivity, possibly changes in cropping patterns, and
certainly the sustained viability of cultivation. All these would be
necessary at both local and national levels. Food can be accessed by all
people only if they have the purchasing power to buy the necessary food,
which means that employment, remuneration and livelihood issues are
important. Social discrimination and exclusion still play unfortunately
large roles in determining both the livelihood of and access to food by
different social categories. This factor needs to be reckoned with.

Malnourishment is closely linked to poor sanitation and unhealthy practices.
So providing clean drinking water, ensuring access to sanitation facilities
and other basic amenities and imparting knowledge about correct or desirable
eating habits are all necessary. Child malnutrition in India tends to be the
worst at the age of five to 11 months, which suggests that breastfeeding and
weaning behaviour matter – and this highlights the need for society to
educate mothers so as to enable them to continue breastfeeding and to shift
to appropriate solids when required.
 Multi-pronged approach

All these issues must be addressed if the rampant problem of undernutrition
has to be dealt with. But, obviously, most of these cannot easily be
translated into legal provisions. It is clear that a law, however well
intentioned and carefully phrased, can only address some of the complex
factors that determine food insecurity. It is important for the government
to be aware of the need for a multi-pronged approach to the problem that has
to extend beyond a legal promise if it is to be successful.

This does not mean that a food security law would be meaningless, far from
it. In fact, by focussing on universal food access and assigning
responsibility and culpability, a law would force the government at both
Central and State levels to take up the entire gamut of issues, which relate
not just to actual food distribution but also to its production and patterns
of consumption, so as to eventually ensure genuine food security.

The key point here is that such a law *must guarantee universal access*. The
dominant failing of drafts of the proposed legislation that have been
circulating in various quarters is that they do not promise or even try to
aim at universal food access. Instead, they tend to be obsessed with
targeting food security at the below poverty line (BPL) population and some
defined vulnerable groups. Some drafts have gone even further, suggesting
that the non-BPL population be excluded entirely from public distribution.

There is no doubt that poor and vulnerable groups have to be the focus of
all public action to ensure food security. But making this a legal provision
is likely to have an effect that is exactly the opposite of what is intended
and would actually reduce the access of such groups. There are many reasons
why targeted schemes, and this one in particular, are unlikely to work. Most
significant of all, there are the well-known errors inherent in targeting:
unjustified exclusion of the genuinely poor and unwarranted inclusion of the
non-poor. These are not simply mistakes that can occur in any administrative
scheme; they are inbuilt into systems that try to provide scarce goods to
one section of any population. In hierarchical and discriminatory societies
such as India, where social and economic power is unequally distributed,
making a scarce good (cheap food) supposedly available only to the poor is
one of the easiest ways to *reduce *their access to it.

The second problem relates to the distinction between food insecurity and
poverty as currently defined. It is evident from the NSSO and NFHS surveys
that the proportion of the population that is nutritionally deprived is
significantly larger than the “poor” population, and in many States, they
are not completely overlapping categories either. To deal with food
insecurity in an effective manner, it is counterproductive to base public
food provision on a predefined group of the “poor”, which would deprive a
large number of others who are also food-insecure.

Part of the reason for this relates to the third problem, the absence of any
notion of dynamics in a rigid law that defines “poor” and “vulnerable”
households in a static sense and changes the group only at infrequent
intervals. Households – and the people within them – can fall in or out of
poverty, however defined, because of changing material circumstances.
Similarly, they can also go from being food-secure to food-insecure in a
short time. The reasons can vary: crop failures, sharp rises in the price of
food, employment collapses, health issues that divert household spending,
the accumulation of debt, and so on. Monitoring each and every household on
a regular basis to check whether any of these or other features has caused
it to become food-insecure is not just administratively difficult but
actually impossible.

This is why all successful programmes of public food distribution, across
societies, have been those that have gone in for universal or near-universal
access. This provides economies of scale; it reduces the transaction costs
and administrative hassles involved in ascertaining the target group and
making sure that the food reaches it; it allows for better public provision
because even the better-off groups with more political voice have a stake in
ensuring it works well; it generates greater stability in government plans
for ensuring food production and procurement.

States with a better record of public food distribution have gone in for
near-universal access. Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh have defined
BPL in such an inclusive way that the vast majority of the population is
included, which makes their schemes close to universal.

So a food security law will be effective only if it is based on universal,
not targeted, food provision and ensures that the nutritional requirements
(both cereals and pulses) of every citizen are met. This also means that the
entitlement must not be household-based but individual-based. Without these
features, the law will not even be able to lay the grounds for genuine food
security in the country.

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