The Right to Food

Dr. Jaya Mehta

Santara Naik, a resident of Dhirapatna village of Dhenkanal district in Odisha, died of starvation in November 2007. Today, his wife Sajani lives in their half-broken, neat but empty dwelling, with their two daughters and a grandson. There is no need to ask her questions about the reasons behind Naik's death. Her appearance conveys more than words could ever do – she herself is nothing more than a bundle of bones. Sajani traces his death to the Odisha government's ban on using bamboo from forests in 1998. Naik had made his living till then by collecting bamboo from forests, weaving baskets and selling them at the village market. However, after the ban, he could not collect bamboo and did not have the financial resources to buy it from the market. He had no other skills and could not find an alternative source of livelihood. He had no experience in agricultural work, and as he belonged to a Scheduled Caste, villagers preferred not to give him agricultural wage work. In the last years of his life, Naik, an artisan, was reduced to a beggar soliciting food from villagers.

Card(s) holder Santara Naik

Santara Naik possessed a BPL card and also a job card under MNREGS. However, he was never given any employment on his job card and he couldn't purchase subsidised grains on his BPL card because he did not have ready cash to buy it. Naik even reported to the Sarpanch and the ward member that he was starving. They gave him Rs. 50 to go and meet the district collector, who in turn sent him to the Block Development Officer. The Block Development Officer was indifferent and offered him no immediate help. The Sarpanch gave him 10 kilos of rice twice. When that got over, the family had to live on wild food items. Then Naik became too ill to move. Despite repeated requests from his wife, the government officials offered no help. The family was occasionally given some rice obtained as part of the mid-day meal programme at the village school, but this was not regular.

Now, almost nine months after his death, his 50-year-old wife and his daughters, aged 28 and 15, haven't found any employment either. Villagers do not enlist their services because of their caste.  Compounding the problem is their low body weight and high malnutrition levels, which make it impossible for them to do heavy manual labour.

On their BPL card, they get only 10 kg of rice against a quota of 25 kg per month. They purchase it with an old age pension of Rs. 200 given to Sajani. However, 10 kg of rice lasts only 10 days and the family sleeps hungry on many days. The daughter Jhunu says ‘How long can we beg and eat? We too will die of starvation soon’.

In Government records Santana Naik has died of old age and chronic illness. It is not recorded as a death due to starvation.1

Santana Naik’s story is not unique. One can narrate innumerable such stories from every corner of the country, be it Nandurbar in Maharashtra, Bundelkhand in Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh, Raichur in Karnataka and many more places in Assam, Andhra, Bengal, Bihar and Tamilnadu. There are no reliable statistics available on deaths due to chronic starvation, because most of these deaths are not recorded as starvation deaths but deaths due to some illness or the other. The policy makers at the top and government officials at the district and village level, who should be implicated for serious criminal offences, are absolved of their guilt. This disgraceful state of affairs has continued for past 65 years and our administration is accountable to no one.

Those who are still alive

More rigorous statistics are available on those who are living with hunger and starvation. On 10th January 2012, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh released the HUNGaMA (Hunger and Malnutrition) report prepared by an NGO - Nandi foundation. He was forced to admit that the problem of malnutrition in the country is a matter of ‘national shame’. The survey took the anthropometric measurement of more than 110000 children covering 112 rural districts across 6 states in the country. It found that in the year 2011, 42 per cent of children were severely or moderately underweight (low weight for age) and 59 per cent suffered from stunting (low height for age).2

The country’s nutritional status is also given by three rounds of country wide surveys conducted by Ministry of health and family welfare. National Family Health Survey (NFHS) for the year 2005-06 informs that 41 per cent of rural and 31 per cent of urban children under three are stunted, forty nine per cent of rural and 36 per cent of urban children are underweight and 20 per cent of rural and 17 per cent of urban children are wasted (low weight for height). Further 81 per cent of rural and 73 per cent of urban children are anaemic. The survey also found 56 per cent of married 58 per cent of pregnant women anaemic.3

India may be one of the fastest growing economies of the world but it is home to 42 per cent of world’s malnourished children. The extent of malnutrition among India children is much higher than among children from Sub-Saharan countries.

Finally, there is one more measure of under nourishment. This measure is related to the controversy over poverty figures given by planning commission. National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO) periodically conducts country wide consumer expenditure surveys. The population is divided into 10 to 12 expenditure groups and detailed per capita monthly expenditure on various food and non food items is recorded. These expenditure surveys also bring out a report on nutritional intake in India. This report gives expenditure group wise per capita per diem calorie intakes in rural and urban India.

The essential nutrients required by human body are carbohydrates, proteins, fats, vitamins and minerals. The last two are classified as ‘minor’ nutrients as they are required in very small quantities. At macro level, the main concern all along has been with protein-calorie malnourishment because it is thought that inadequacy of minor nutrients is essentially qualitative in nature and can be remedied without involving significant resource cost. Even in protein-calorie malnourishment it is suggested that if the diet is sufficiently diversified, then calorie sufficient diet provides requisite amount of protein. On the other hand, in the case of calorie insufficiency, sufficient or more than sufficient amount of proteins are of little use. The proteins will be first used by the body to meet the calorie deficit. Thus, the problem of malnourishment has essentially been reduced to that of inadequate calorie intake.

The energy requirement for a reference adult in India (consumer unit) was fixed at per diem intake of 2700 kcal by the nutrition experts. This was translated into per capita rural and urban requirements on the basis of age-sex-occupational profiles of urban and rural households in 1982-83. Accordingly, the nutritional requirements were fixed at per capita per diem intake of 2400 kcal in rural India and 2100 kcal for urban India. The per capita energy requirements may have changed over the years and there will be regional variations also. But no such detailed exercise has been undertaken and calorie requirements have not been officially revised by the planning commission.

Absurd Poverty Statistics of Planning Commission

The task force appointed by the planning commission in 1978 defined poverty line as the average per capita monthly expenditure of that expenditure group whose expenditure on food enabled per capita per diem intake of 2400 Kcal in rural India and 2100 Kcal in urban India. These nutritional norms were fixed on the basis of age-sex-occupational structure of rural and urban population and the corresponding energy allowances recommended by nutrition expert group. In 1973-74, the proportion of population below poverty line was 56 per cent in rural areas and 49 per cent in urban areas. The poverty lines were Rs. 49 for rural and Rs. 56 for urban India.

In subsequent years, the poverty lines of 1973-4 have been upgraded according to price increases and corresponding poverty ratios calculated. The official figures showed rapidly declining trend of poverty. However, the poverty lines obtained by simply adjusting to price indices, did not conform to the nutritional norms, which formed the only basis of fixing the original poverty lines. The reason was that the consumption baskets had altered over the years. The proportion of total expenditure spent on food had declined substantially. As a result, the consumption level at official poverty lines related to calorie intakes much lower than the normative requirements.  The rural poverty line of 1983 corresponded to 2200 Kcal, that of 1993-94 to 1968 Kcal and that of 1999-2000 to 1868 Kcal. For the year 2004-5, the rural poverty line of Rs. 356.30 corresponded to per capita per diem intake of only 1800 Kcal, which was 800 Kcal short of nutritional norms fixed in 1973-74. This discrepancy rendered the rapidly declining official poverty ratio of 27 per cent for 2004-5, completely untenable. 

Consequently, planning commission set up a committee to look into the methodology of poverty estimation. Professor Tendulkar was the chairperson. Tendulkar committee resolved the controversy by taking a position that the definition of ‘poverty’ should be delinked from nutritional norms. The committee decided to make the urban poverty ratio of 25.7 per cent for the year 2004-5 as the new baseline for poverty estimation. The problem of underestimating poverty was located in the incorrect relative rural-urban price ratio. Implicit price index was used and accordingly rural poverty line and rural poverty ratio were revised upwards. Rural poverty ratio was increased 28.3 per cent to 41.8 per cent.

In 2012, Planning Commission released the poverty estimates for 2009-10 based on 66th round of NSS consumer expenditure survey. These estimates were derived using Tendulkar Committee methodology. The rural poverty line for 2009-10 is Rs 672.8 and poverty ratio is 33.8 per cent. The urban poverty line is Rs 859.6 and the urban poverty ratio is 20.9 per cent. The poverty line Rs 672.8 corresponds to the third lowest decile class of rural population and the average per capita per diem intake for this decile class is 1901 Kcal. Similarly Rs. 859.6 corresponds to second lowest decile class of urban population where the average per capita per diem intake is 1773 Kcal. The calorie intake at poverty level is far below the nutritional requirements fixed in 1978.
In the beginning poverty measurement was exclusively anchored on hunger index. Now it has been freed from the clutches of hunger. So, you may be hungry but you are not necessarily poor.

In the absence of any revised norms we stick to the original normative requirements and assess the nutritional status of rural and urban households as projected by the nutritional intake report for 2009-10. According to NSS data, it is the 9th decile class of rural population that reports average intake of 2473 Kcal per capita per diem and 6th decile class of urban population which reports an average intake of 2173 Kcal per capita per diem. In other words, more than 80 per cent of rural population and more than 50 per cent of urban population do not have sufficient buying capacity to ensure required per capita calorie intake.4

Malnutrition in India is indeed a matter of serious concern which requires immediate attention. No country can hope for a long term sustainable development if the main productive force – labour force is so severely compromised.

Food Security at Macro level: Imperialist Designs

Food insecurity, however, does not refer only to actually malnourished section of the population. Food insecure people constitute a much larger domain than that. In addition to actually malnourished people, all those who are under a threat that their nutritional intake may fall below the required minimum if any contingency arises are also food insecure.

According to Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) ‘food security’ exists in  a country when all people at all times have physical, social and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food  to meet their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life. Defined in this manner food security has two requirements: one that sufficient food is available at macro level on a consistent basis and two that individual households have economic and physical access to this food.

Production and therefore, availability of food should primarily depend on the natural endowment (climate-soil complex) of the country. In this respect the tropical and sub tropical regions are at an advantage. A variety of plants can be grown and plant growth takes place throughout the year in these regions. In temperate zones, the range of plants and the growing season both are restricted. It is ironical that the entire food insecure population lives in the richly endowed regions of Asia, Africa and Latin America. According to FAO there are 963 million people, who do not have enough to eat. Sixty five per cent of them live in only seven countries – China, India, Bangladesh, Republic of Congo, Indonesia, Pakistan and Ethiopia.

Since the colonial era, the rich bio-diversity and robust plant growth capacity of tropical countries have been exploited to supply raw material for industries in the northern countries and enrich the consumption basket of population there. When agricultural production was geared to meet the import requirements of colonial powers, it naturally led to a reduced food grain production and reduced availability of food to the population in colonies. History is flush with instances when land use pattern of the colonies was forcibly changed by colonial masters. Cotton was grown in India for the textile industry in England. Sugarcane was grown in Korea and Taiwan for the sugar industry in Japan. Forcible cultivation of Poppy in Bengal and Bihar for exporting opium to China and forcible cultivation of indigo in Bihar by the British government are well known.

In India, between 1918 and 1947 the growth rate of food grain production was only 0.11 per cent, whereas the growth rate of non-food grain export oriented production was 1.31 per cent. The per capita per annum food grain availability declined from 200 Kg in 1918 to 150 Kg in 1947. The overall decline was further marked by significant regional differences. The steepest fall was in greater Bengal where food grain availability got reduced by 38 per cent. This long term decline made rural Bengal so vulnerable that it broke down completely under the pressure of great depression of 1930s and then inflationary financing of Second World War. Bengal famine claimed 3 million lives and left an indelible mark on those who survived.5

The period after decolonisation witnessed quota and tariff restrictions on international movement of goods and services. The post colonial countries made attempts to protect themselves from unfair trade practices and privilege domestic food security. Our planners in Independent India laid special emphasis on attaining food sovereignty. In 1950s and early 1960s land reforms were enacted and partially implemented and in latter half of 1960s green revolution was ushered in, in the northern states. Between 1950 and 1985, total food grain output in India increased from 50 million tons to 150 million tons. The post colonial dirigiste regime imposed export and import restrictions. India ceased to import food and became self sufficient in this respect. The per capita food grain availability increased from 152.72 Kg. in 1950-51 to 166.29 Kg. in 1981-85.

It needs to be mentioned that the transition to self sufficiency in food was attained by promoting a highly unequal pattern of capitalist investment in agriculture. The package of HYV seeds, fertilizers and pesticides was provided to rich and medium farmers of Punjab, Haryana and western U.P. Well-developed irrigation networks were already present in these regions. The Food Corporation of India (FCI) was set up in 1965 to offer effective price support to farmers and safeguard their interests. A powerful lobby of capitalist farmers consolidated its gains at the expense of marginal and small farmers and tenant cultivators.

This period, during which post colonial regimes attempted independent and controlled capitalist development with trade barriers and constant exchange rates, did not last long. The post World War Bretton Woods structure of fixed exchange rates broke down in 1970s. There was a renewed onslaught by advanced countries to establish ‘free trade’ regimes. In the decade of 1980, developing countries of Asia, Latin America and Africa were forced to implement structural adjustment programmes and to remove all trade barriers designed to protect their domestic economies.

In 1995, World Trade Organisation (WTO) was established to formalise the new trade regime. Once again the design has been to change the land use pattern of tropical countries so that they provide the exotic commodities demanded by the industrialised world. With modern means of transport, the range of products demanded by the industrialised world has expanded greatly. In return, the domestic demand for food is to be met by the global markets of grain from US, Canada and Europe. Big agri-businesses have played a pivotal role in realizing this international division of labour in agriculture. Country after country has changed its land use pattern and in turn, lost its food sovereignty. Mexico was the pioneer of High Yield Variety (HYV) wheat and green revolution. But the country got engaged in export thrust of such dimension that its food security got undermined by 1970s and the population was plunged into a spiral of declining basic food consumption. In 2010, Ethiopia was home to 2.8 million people in need of emergency food aid, yet the country had concurrently sold more than 600,000 hectares of land to transnational companies. The companies are using the entire land to produce export commodities.6 Ethiopia and Mexico are not alone. The 21st century has taken us back to colonial days where, third world countries with rich heritage of biodiversity and robust plant growth potential are subjected to repeated famines and food riots.

Neo liberal reforms were introduced in Indian economy in 1991. In past two decades, the government removed all trade barriers and exposed Indian farmers to unfair and aggressive world markets of agricultural commodities. The public expenditure in agriculture and rural infrastructure was cut down drastically. It allowed, and at times actively supported land grab by corporate sector. Arable land has been put to non-agricultural uses and this transition is irreversible. The government also encouraged corporate sector to make deep inroads into agricultural input and output markets.

The net result is that Indian economy is engulfed in a deep and intractable agrarian crisis. The dynamic growth performance of the economy has been accompanied by an unprecedented long stretch of stagnation in agriculture. The share of agriculture in gross domestic product has come down to 14 per cent; whereas the workforce is employed in the sector is still around 60 per cent. More than 200000 farmers have committed suicide during this period. Net availability of food grain has declined from 176 kg per capita per annum in 1989-93 to 161 kg in 2006-10. It was as low as 151 kg in 2001 and 154 kg in 2005. The fragility of macro level equilibrium in food availability and food sovereignty in India appears starker when international comparisons are made. Per capita food grain availability in United States is in the range of 1000 kg. In European Union it is more than 500 kg and in China it is more than 300 kg.

Food Security at Micro level: Public Distribution System (PDS)

Macro level self sufficiency in food by itself does not ensure food security for the country. Food security implies that every household has economic and physical access to the available food. This can be best attained by evolving a production structure and an employment pattern, which allows every household to participate meaningfully in the development process and earn sufficient income to access not just food but all the basic necessities of a dignified life.

Integration of workforce in the production structure has always been lopsided. The macroeconomic policy never prioritised the restructuring of the employment pattern. Capitalist development trajectory does not admit such priorities. The neo liberal economic environment has further exacerbated the situation.

However, it was realised early enough that state intervention in food distribution will be required in contingent situations. Rationed food supply was made available at subsidised rates at control shops (fair price shops) in Bombay in 1939 as a war time measure. After the Bengal famine, the scheme was extended to many more urban centres and subsequently also to rural areas. After independence, there were major changes in food policy. The Agricultural Price Commission (later renamed Commission on Agricultural Cost and Prices) and Food Corporation of India were set up in 1960s and it was decided to have a permanent and universal programme of Public Distribution System. Major commodities to be distributed would be wheat, rice, sugar and kerosene. Initially, PDS depended heavily on imported grains but after green revolution, food grain stock for distribution was made available from domestic production. The fair price shops increased in number and in 1984, central government created ministry of food and civil supplies. 

Today there are 4.99 lakh fair price shops across the country and subsidized food grains are distributed to around 65 million households. PDS in India perhaps constitutes the largest distributive network in the world. The system is managed jointly by central and state governments. Food Corporation of India procures, maintains and issues grains to state governments who have the responsibility of reaching it to the people through fair price shops.

Targeting was introduced in Public Distribution System in June 1997. The system now has a two tier subsidized pricing structure for families below the poverty line (BPL) and families above the poverty line (APL). The APL families receive the food grains at price equal to economic cost and BPL families get their grain at 50 per cent of economic cost. Each BPL family is gets 35 kg of grain and APL family gets 15 kg of grain every month. In December 2000 Antyodaya Anna Yojana (AAY) was launched under which the poorest families were identified. AAY families are given 35 kg of grain: wheat at Rs. 2 per kg and rice at Rs. 3 per kg.

Procurement of food grains at minimum support price (MSP) by FCI is open ended. Allocations of subsidised grains to the states are made on the basis of head count of poverty group population obtained from the poverty estimates of the planning commission. Additional quantities required by states are made available if stocks in central pool are adequate. These additional allocations are supplied at APL prices. States are free to increase the quantum and coverage of subsidy from their own resources. Targeted PDS has not functioned satisfactorily. The problems encountered in targeting the food subsidy are many.

Identification of BPL and AAY families is done by the state governments. For this purpose the state governments conduct BPL census. The guidelines for conducting the census are given by the Ministry of Rural Development. The first BPL census was conducted in 1992 and then for the 9th plan in 1997. Criteria for determining BPL families in 1997 were: a family with annual income less than 20,000, or land less than 2 hectares, or a family without fridge or television.

The BPL census for 10th plan was conducted in 2002. This time deprivation was defined in terms of 13 parameters. Each parameter was given 4 points and families with less than 15 points were defined as BPL families. PUCL filed a writ against BPL enumeration in 2002 and Supreme Court gave a stay order. Later, in 2005, based on the advice given by the Additional Solicitor General, the government decided to finalise the results of the 2002 BPL census without deleting the BPL families identified in the 1997 census. In 2007, no census was undertaken. For 2012, ministry of Rural Development issued new guidelines and enumeration of BPL families is on.

It is clear that there is a long time-gap in identification of families who have to be given subsidised food grain. When a large section of population is vulnerable and can fall into the poverty group with slightest of disturbance, then a targeted PDS programme requires continuous monitoring and revision of BPL list. It is clear that continuous monitoring is not a feasible proposition in the PDS structure, which is centrally controlled and administered.

Identification of BPL families is an independent exercise with independent set of criteria. There is no reason why BPL enumeration should match with the headcount poverty ratios of Planning Commission. As already mentioned the Planning Commission greatly underestimates poverty. As a result, BPL families identified by the state governments far exceed the Planning Commission’s poverty head count. State governments are then expected to cap their BPL lists in accordance with the Planning Commission estimates. This is done most arbitrarily and a large number of deserving families get excluded from the list of beneficiaries.

There is an additional complicating factor in preparation of the BPL list. Apart from subsidised PDS food grains, many central and state government schemes are also targeted towards BPL families. Therefore, people clamour for a BPL card not just for subsidised food but for getting many other advantages. Inability to construct a comprehensive and continuously monitored BPL list makes targeted PDS an unworkable programme. And all over the country left parties, peoples’ movements and activists are demanding that PDS should again become a universal programme.

Leakages increased with targeting

NSS consumer expenditure survey routinely collects data on grain purchased from PDS shops. PDS purchase reported in NSS data should be equal to PDS sales reported by ministry of Food and Consumer Affairs. The gap between two figures would indicate the extent of leakage. In 1993-94, when PDS was universal this gap was 19 per cent for rice and 41 per cent for wheat. In 2004-05, after PDS was targeted, this gap increased to 40 per cent for rice and 73 per cent for wheat.

‘Why Not a Universal Food Security Legislation?’ Abhijit Sen and Himanshu EPW March 19 2011

There are other problems with PDS. One major problem is that subsidised grain is available only for two three days in a month at the PDS shop. The BPL card holders should have the cash available with them to buy the grain at that time. There are many like Santara Naik who do not have the ready cash to buy 35 Kg of grain at one go. They buy their ration on daily basis or weekly basis. PDS subsidy is irrelevant for such people.

Myriad instances of corruption in the distributive network, inadequate storage and transport facilities can be narrated. They had become so common that no one paid any attention to them till recently when Supreme Court of India repeatedly reprimanded the government for rampant corruption in the fair price shop network and poor storage and distributive facilities with the FCI.

Cash Transfer Scheme

The replacement of food grain by cash should be seen in conjunction with the decision of the government to raise the foreign direct investment limit for international capital in retail business. Poor consumers will be given cash and expected to go to the shopping malls to buy food from international retail chains. There cannot be a bigger joke played on the impoverished malnourished population of this so called democracy. Countries like Sri Lanka and Philippines have chosen to give cash instead of food and have put their population in more vulnerable state than before.

At the outset there are three arguments against the system of cash transfer which envisages giving cash equivalent of the price subsidy in food grains to the families so that they can buy their food from any shop they like.
  • The most crucial problem with targeted PDS is the inadequacy of BPL list. Targeted cash transfer scheme even when assisted by smart card scheme (Adhaar) will not be able to include a large number of deserving households unless the poverty estimates of Planning Commission are appropriately revised. In fact unique identification scheme should be rejected. It will be of little use in identifying the beneficiaries but it will certainly impinge on the civil liberties of people.
  • If the cash equivalent is given, how can the vulnerable family be protected against high rate of inflation and wild price fluctuations that occur routinely in food items?
  • Cash will be given to the head of the family and there is no mechanism to ensure that it will be spent on food. Women are particularly apprehensive about the scheme.

This created a stir in the national media. Especially after targeting PDS, FCI is faced with overflowing stocks because APL off take is small. However, the storage capacity available with FCI centres in most states is inadequate and poorly maintained. Corruption at PDS outlets has also increased after targeting.7

When the government is waiting with the food security bill to become an act, it is of utmost importance that the PDS infrastructure is revamped without any delay. Instead, the strong neoliberal lobby (including the deputy chairman of Planning Commission and the economic advisor to Prime minister), is talking of replacing the PDS structure by a system of  food coupons or cash transfers. This is a standard approach, which has been used for dismantling public enterprises and curtailing state responsibility in many areas. First, the functioning is criticised as being inefficient and then instead of improving it and making it work efficiently, it is discarded or replaced by a private initiative.

Food Security Bill

Food Security Act was the election promise of Congress party in 2009. After UPA II took office it was reiterated that the Act would come into force within 100 days. Now it is 2012 and the National Food Security bill is still awaiting approval of the parliament. One draft of the bill was prepared by the National Advisory Council (NAC), which went for perusal to the Rangrajan committee appointed by the Prime Minister. Finally, the Ministry of Consumer Affairs, Food and Public Distribution prepared a draft bill, which was cleared by the Cabinet Ministers, tabled in Lok Sabha and then handed over to the Parliamentary Standing Committee.

The bill essentially attempts to provide food security by reaching subsidised food grain to the population through the PDS network. For this purpose both the NAC draft and the ministry’s draft divide the population into three categories: the priority households, general households and the excluded households. Different PDS entitlements are prescribed for the three groups: major benefits for the priority group, token benefits for the general group and nothing for the excluded group. The priority group households would get 7 kg of grain per person per month at highly subsidised rates (Rs. 2 per kg for wheat and Rs. 3 per kg. for rice). The general category households would get 3 kg (4 kg in NAC draft) of grain per person per month at half the Minimum Support Price (MSP) paid by FCI.

It is clear that the subsidised grain allotments in the bill do not cover the entire nutritional requirements of the population. They do not even cover the food grain requirements per person which is 14 kg per month. More serious problem with the bill is that there is no clarity regarding identification of different groups in either of the drafts. The NAC draft specified the proportion of households in different groups. Accordingly, the excluded group will comprise of 10 per cent of rural households and 50 per cent of urban households. The priority group will cover 46 per cent of rural households and 28 per cent of urban households. And the general group will cover 44 per cent of rural population and 22 per cent of urban population.

The ministry's draft has increased the proportion of excluded group in rural areas from 10 to 25 per cent. So far as priority group households are concerned, their proportion will be specified by the state wise poverty ratios given by the Central Government. Given the underestimation of poverty lines and poverty ratios and the discordance between the enumeration in BPL census and headcounts obtained from Planning Commission's estimates, it is unlikely that the Food security bill in its present format will ensure even the inadequate supply of subsidised grain to deserving households. It will merely be a legal guarantee on paper. How can people demand their rights when rights are targeted and there is no clarity as to who the right holder is and who is not.

Peoples’ groups from different progressive quarters, Left parties and Right to Food campaigners are demanding that the food security bill in its present form should be rejected. One of the main demands is that the bill should remove the poverty caps and provide universal entitlement of subsidised food grains. And the specified entitlement should be expanded to cover the minimum nutritional requirement of the population. Demand for universal right to food is absolutely correct. As the NSS report on nutritional intake points out more than 80 per cent of rural households and more than 60 per cent of urban households are not able to get adequate calories from their diet. They are in need of assistance from the state. On the other hand, for the state to admit that such a large section of population is in need of sustained assistance for survival is not a simple matter. It would mean that the 8 per cent and 9 per cent growth of Indian economy has no legitimacy. The growth trajectory needs to change its direction and this would entail a change of production structure and production relations. A capitalist regime allied to the metropolitan capital is not in a position to accept this position.

The other important demand is that the PDS network should be expanded and restructured. The NAC draft provided an elaborate grievance redressal structure which would have improved PDS functioning. The draft bill prepared by the ministry, instead of talking about improving PDS, offers a back door entry to cash transfers. It mentions that if the existing system fails to supply grains, the government can consider giving cash allowance. It also makes it mandatory for the government to strive for introducing the scheme of cash transfer under the provision for advancing food security. The right to food campaign urgently appeals that the government’s move to dismantle PDS should be nipped in the bud. As a counter move there should be a well crafted plan for radical restructuring of existing public distribution system.

To remove corruption from fair price shops, private shopkeepers need to be largely replaced by co-operatives run by local communities as has been done in some places. At the same time a radical restructuring of procurement storage and distribution system is also required. If the coverage is to be made universal and entitlement increased, then procurement will have to be expanded substantially and also decentralised. There is a suggestion to think in terms of localised management and carve out procurement and distribution zones. Grains procured in a given zone can be distributed within the zone. Only in case of deficit, grains will be transported from surplus zones. Localised procurement and distribution along with community participation can work wonders.8

Food Sovereignty – Via Campesina

We discussed food sovereignty at the macro level of nation-state and pointed out that the governments of the third world countries are unable to withstand the pressure of international financial institutions, World Trade Organisation and agribusiness. Multinational corporations have captured the input and output markets of agricultural commodities and have also acquired direct control over land and forests. The rich biodiversity and plant growth potential is used to enrich the consumption basket of imperialist world, while the local residents are unable to fulfil their basic requirements. After having robbed people of their natural wealth, the international donor agencies and national governments make plans to provide food security through international markets operated by agribusiness. Subsidy required to provide this food security is a matter of great concern for policy makers who want to keep it to minimum. Obviously, food aid given in this manner is no security of any kind and people resent the situation forced on them.

When the state is unable to protect the interest of the people, they have to stand up on their own to protect their rights and their security. ‘Food sovereignty’ at village level or community level is one such move by peasants and other rural organisations across the continents of Asia, Africa, Europe and America.

When the Uruguay round of General Agreement on Trade and Tariff (GATT) was signed, peasants, pastoralists, fisher folk, indigenous people, women, rural youth, environmentalists and others came together to form an international peasant and farm movement ‘La Via Campesina’ (the peasant way). Today La Via Campesina comprises 150 local and national organisations in 70 countries. It represents about 200 million farmers.

 ‘Food Sovereignty’ is a term coined by Via Campesina to represent the ‘right’ of people to define their own food, agriculture, livestock and fisheries systems and not allowing international markets to take control of food production and distribution. During the 2002 World Food Summit, the ‘Forum on Food Sovereignty’ defined the concept as follows:

Food Sovereignty is the right of people, communities and countries to define their own agricultural, fishing, land and labour policy which are ecologically, socially, economically and culturally appropriate to their unique circumstances. Food Sovereignty means right to food and right to food producing resources. Food Sovereignty means primacy of peoples’ and communities’ rights to food and food production over trade concerns.

The principles of food sovereignty are further elaborated as follows:

Food is a basic human right: Everyone must have access to safe, nutritious and culturally appropriate food in sufficient quantity. Each nation should declare that access to food is a constitutional right and guarantee that right.

Agrarian Reform: Agrarian reform should give landless and farming people, especially women, ownership and control of the land on which they work. Indigenous people should be given back their territories.

Protection of Natural Resources: People who work on land must have right to practice sustainable management of natural resources and to conserve bio-diversity. Intellectual Property Rights imposed by the imperialist powers should be rejected.

Curtailment of Food Trade: Food is first and foremost a source of nutrition. It is not an item of trade. National agricultural policies must prioritise production for domestic consumption and food self sufficiency. International and national trade should be allowed only after the local requirements are taken care of. 

Social Peace and Democratic Control: The ongoing displacement of indigenous people and small holder farmers and forced urbanisation should be stopped. Violence due to racial caste conflicts should be stopped immediately. Small holder farmers must have direct input into formulating agricultural policies. Rural women, in particular must be granted direct and active decision making on food and rural issues. 

The concept of food sovereignty as evolved by Via Campesina is accepted without any reservation. This can be the only counter to the dominant global discourse on food provisioning through corporate food regime. It rightly takes the position that distribution and consumption of food cannot be independent of who produces it. It is only the collective strength of decentralised community control over resources and production which can effectively challenge the corporate paradigm and establish a just and equitable system of exchange, distribution and consumption.

In September 2008, Ecuador became the first country to enshrine food sovereignty in its constitution. As a result, genetically modified (GM) organism would be banned. Large areas of the country will be protected from extraction of non-renewable resources. And bio-diversity will be protected as collective intellectual property.

Distinction should, however, be made between ‘food sovereignty’ as a theoretical construct and ‘food sovereignty’ as a movement. As a movement, food sovereignty involves a great diversity of opinions and ideas. The central problem is that in its strong reassertion of rural and peasant identity the movement fails to account for differentiation within peasantry. The rural community is not a homogeneous entity. It is comprised of different section with conflicting interests. The ‘food sovereignty’ movement is in no position to resolve these conflicts and therefore, it takes no cognisance of them.

When it is a conflict between state and peasantry, Via Campesina supports the peasantry. It offers massive supports to the Honduran peasants’ land occupation movement which began on April 17, 2012. April 17 is the International Day of Peasant Struggle.

When it is a conflict between the corporates and the peasantry, Via Campesina supports the peasantry. It supported agitations against GM seeds in Latin America, Caribbean countries, Africa, India and also Europe.

When there is conflict within the rural community, where medium level capitalist farmers exploit wage labour or dislodge tenant farmers, then Via Campesina will have to take a position, which may be difficult. There are caste conflicts and feudal exploitation in many parts of the country. It is necessary to resolve these contradictions. The struggle against state or struggle against corporate cannot sustain if the internal contradictions in the rural community are not resolved. In India, the peasant organisations which have joined Via Campesina are Karnataka Rajya Ryota Sangha (KRRS), Nandya Raita Samakhya, Andhra Pradesh, Kerala Coconut Farmers Association, Tamil Nadu Farmers Association and units of Bharatiya Kisan Union from various states. These organisations generally represent medium and large farmers in the country. However, we also have the Dalit women from Andhra successfully demonstrating collective community strength.

Alternative PDS

Landless dalit women in Medak district of Andhra Pradesh have been helped by an NGO- Deccan Development Society to collectively lease in or buy land and cultivate it. These women have set up a model of alternative public distribution system with excellent results in terms of productivity enhancement, employment generation and improved nutritional status of the population in the villages.

Dalits are traditionally deprived of land ownership. If they get 1 acre or less of land from the government, they are unable to cultivate it. Cultivating a small piece of poor quality land with no additional resource base is not a viable proposition. Their land is left fallow, while they earn their living through labour. The women’s groups identified such fallow land in the village and reached an understanding with the land owners that the land will be improved and cultivated. Jowar (sorghum) was grown on this land using indigenous seeds, organic manure and no pesticides. DDS extended loan for cultivating this land and loan was returned by contributing grain to the local community grain fund. This grain was distributed in the village according to the wealth profile of the households. This wealth profile was ascertained through participatory rural appraisal. The poorest family gets the maximum grain. Rather than standard wheat and rice APDS distributes locally grown millets and also some uncultivated food which is traditionally consumed in the region.

In 2005 APDS had extended to 77 villages. The initiative reclaimed 5000 acres of land and produced 2 million kilogram of extra food grain every season. On an average 5000 man days of employment was generated per village.

(Ref: Kanchi Kohli, Food Sovereignty not just Security, India Together, 31st October, 2005)

The theoretical construct can be used to build a movement. Who takes a dominant role in the movement will depend on the political forces.9
Women and Food Security

In every society, the division of labour between men and women is such that the responsibility of reproduction of labour is bestowed upon women. Consequently, gathering food and managing it for the household is the woman’s domain. It is a travesty that while a woman gathers, cooks and manages food for the entire household, her own claim on the available food is most tenuous. A girl child is discriminated against in every respect – education, freedom of movement, health care and food. Even when women are pregnant and nursing mothers and their demand for food is a matter of life and death, they are unable to get adequate nourishment. Anaemic and undernourished women give birth to babies with low birth weight whose survival chances are slim. When they survive, they grow up - stunted and wasted with compromised intellectual capability.

This intra household discrimination against women cannot be fought individually. It has to be a part of a collective struggle of the women’s’ movement. Equal rights of women on household resources, their rights to personal freedom and their rights to participate in household decision making have been prime constituents of women’s struggles and they continue to be so.

As women struggle for their rights within the household, they struggle for their rights outside. They struggle for equal wages; they struggle for their security in the workplace and on the streets; they struggle for their rights to participate in legislative bodies – in panchayats and in the parliament. The domain for women’s struggle is, however, much wider than fighting for their own rights. Women are at the forefront of the various peoples movements. In anti displacement movement, women are in the front rows of the struggle to save their land and their villages. Women lead the struggle against POSCO in the villages of Orissa. Women sacrifice their lives resisting the Special Armed Forces Act in Manipur. Women have also defined food sovereignty at the level of village community. Collective farming and many other cooperative activities are being done by women’s groups in Kerala, in Andhra Pradesh, in Gujarat and many other places.

Indeed, women form the vanguard section in people’s struggles against the state and against corporations. They demand a society in which labour and not the accumulation of material wealth is at the centre. Only a society that respects labour can respect those who are engaged in reproduction of labour.

We, the women of India demand that the government enacts a food security act which gives universal and not targeted right to food. It is the responsibility of the state to reach adequate food to every household. Special care should be taken of the vulnerable section but this can be done without excluding others. This is only a transitional demand. We shall not allow the pathways from agriculture to food distribution be decided without our active intervention.

Food security has to be provided in such a manner that it enables people to strengthen their productive potential and their control over natural wealth which is theirs.

(Dr. Jaya Mehta is a known Marxist Economist. She works with Joshi-Adhikari Institute of Social Studies, on the issue of Agrarian Crisis.)


1 Arpan Tulsyan, ‘Starvation persists in Orissa’, 19 July 2008, India together.

2 HUNGaMA Survey report-2011

3 National Family Health Survey (NFHS-3)

4 Nutrition Intake in India NSS 66th round July 2009-June 2010, Report No. 540

5 ‘Export-Oriented Agriculture and Food Security in Developing Countries and in India’ in The Long Transition – Essays on Political Economy by Utsa Patnaik

6 ‘When Others are Grabbing Their Land’ Economist 14 July 2011,

7 Ref. Madhura Swaminathan Weakening Welfare: The Public Distribution of Food in India, 2000 Left word, Reetika Khera ‘Revival of Public Distribution System’ EPW November 5, 2011. Indira Hirway Identification of BPL households for Poverty alleviation Programmes  EPW Nov 8 , 2003

8 Ref. EPW editorials Food Security Bill: Simpler the Better, Dec 24, 2011. Lip Service to Food Security, July 30, 2011. Trivialising Food Security, April 17, 2010, Right to Food, EPW August 13, 2011, National Food Security Bill 2011,

9 This section on Food Sovereignty is written with the help of some secondary material consisted of – 1. La Via Campesina Globalisation and the power of Peasant Anntte Aurelie Desmarais Daanish Books 2006, 2. Food Sovereignty from WikiIpedia, 3.

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