Monday, June 11, 2012

Need for a different food security law

S U M A N  S A H A I 

THE Union cabinet has recently approved a flawed and inadequate food security bill (FSB) that is, at least in part, driven by the Sonia Gandhi led National Advisory Council. It was widely reported that Gandhi’s determination to push the bill at all costs was to make good a Congress Party poll promise. To achieve food security, the FSB proposes to revise the Public Distribution System (PDS) and provide 7 kilograms of rice and wheat at Rs 3 and Rs 2 per kg respectively, per person, to people below the poverty line. For a family of five, this will amount to 35 kg of grain per month.[2] To people above the poverty line, the bill proposes to provide three kilograms of cereal per person at half the minimum support price that the government pays at the time of procurement.

This allotment is as yet only proposed and the 15 kg cereal per above poverty line (APL) family is not planned in the first phase.[3] For those who so desire, there is a provision to include millets in lieu of wheat and rice at one rupee per kilogram.

Given the prevalence and persistence of hunger, the country certainly requires a legislation on food security, but a comprehensive one; not one that deals with just a part of the picture.

In order to achieve genuine food security, a legislation must cover all aspects related to it, first and foremost ensuring that sufficient food is produced so that enough is available for everyone. Second, an effective distribution system must be in place so that people can access the food easily, and finally, ensure that food that is eaten is absorbed by the body to provide nutrition. The last can only be achieved by providing clean drinking water and sanitation to slash the incidence of diarrheal disease that prevents nutrition from being absorbed. These then are the three pillars of food security: the production, distribution and absorption of food.

The National Food Security Bill presented by the UPA (United Progressive Alliance) government addresses only the distribution of food and should correctly be called the Revised PDS Bill rather than the overly ambitious food security bill. It neither addressesthe production of food nor does it include any features to improve the appalling state of sanitation and clean drinking water that robs the body of nutrition.

Ignoring the aspect of food production in a food security legislation underlines the inadequacy of the bill, especially given that India is in the throes of a severe agrarian crisis. In part, at least, agriculture productivity is declining and fields lie fallow as farmers in distress may prefer to abandon the profession because of its failure to provide either food or a livelihood.

Growth in food grain production has fallen to 1.7 per cent, below the population growth rate of 1.9 per cent. This translated to a decline in per capita availability of food grains by3.5 kg in the period from 1995 to 2001. Concurrently, there has been an unprecedented decline in the availability of cereals and pulses in the 15 years from 1991 to 2004 – from 510 grams per capita per day to 463 gms per capita per day because of a decline in production.[4]

There is a high level of indebtedness in the farming community which is eroding their ability to continue cultivation. According to the finance ministry’s 2007 report, about half of India’s farmers are indebted and the inability to repay loans has in part led to some farmers preferring to end their lives.[5] The debt burden is crushing farm productivity, most of all in the surplus food producing states of Punjab, Kerala, Haryana, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu, which feed the country’s buffer stocks and the government’s food support schemes like the Public Distribution System (PDS), the Integrated Child Development Scheme (ICDS), the Mid Day Meal Scheme, Annapoorna for the elderly and Antyodaya for the extremely poor.

The production of food is declining for a number of reasons like stagnation in agriculture, increasing production risks exacerbated by the uncertainties of climate change, unfavourable  prices and a callous neglect by formal institutions, specially those relating to credit and insurance. Agriculture credit has been squeezed and since banks do not lend to farmers, they are forced to seek loans at usurious rates from private lenders. The finance ministry report referred to earlier says that only four per cent of farm households had ever insured their crops and 57 per cent did not even know that crops could be insured.[6] All these factors are making agriculture and food production uncertain and risky and farmers are getting increasingly disenchanted. A food security bill that does not address such central problems cannot be taken seriously.

Farmers are abandoning agriculture because it is unprofitable and risky. The National Sample Survey Organization (NSSO) in its 2005 report says that 40 per cent of Indian farmers want to forsake farming if they can find another means of livelihood.[7]  Not only is farming the riskiest business in the world, in India it is also a loss making enterprise. Input costs have gone through the roof, even as the government ‘controls’ the price of farm produce. The Minimum Support Price (MSP) in most states does not coverthe cost of production for the crops which are procured by the government. This applies to all the major food crops – paddy, wheat, jowar, bajra, maize, ragi, arhar, moong, urad, chana (gram) and barley.

Neither policy responses nor the food security bill reflect the enormous disaster in the making as the agrarian crisis worsens. In the kharif season of 2011, farmers in Andhra Pradesh declared a crop holiday and refused to plant their fields since, under the present conditions, they end up losing money.[8] In rain fed regions like Jharkhand, farmers have been leaving their upland fields fallow for the last several years.[9] Now the extent of fallow fields has increased; it extends even to the more productive lowland fields which are not cultivated primarily because the economics simply does not add up. The crisis on the farm can be gauged from the fact that in rain fed regions, where only one crop is cultivated in the year, farmers are electing to not even plant this crop. They prefer to abandon their fields and migrate to the cities in search of manual labour which at least brings in some income.

If we do not watch out the production of food will continue to decline at a dangerous rate, making the country food deficient and our people food insecure. For those who assume that any shortfall in food production can be made up by imports and our granaries filled with foreign grain, should study the situation of food availability in the international market. To state it sharply, there is insufficient food on the international market that can be bought to overcome a crisis.

Unlike the old days when India could go out and buy (expensive) food from the international market to plug a shortfall, it may find it difficult do so today since there is almost no food to buy. There are two principal reasons for this. One is the speculation in food grains that has led to high prices and hoarding. The other, more pervasive one, is the American policy on biofuels (now copied by other countries, including India ) because of which American corn is being diverted to produce ethanol to run cars. With corn, the staple of animal and poultry feed, going to biofuel production, there is a shortage of feed in the livestock sector which in turn is buying wheat and rice for animal feed, causing their prices to shoot up and stocks to vanish.

American farmers now find it more profitable to plant corn than wheat and rice because of the demand from the biofuel sector as a result of which cultivation of wheat and rice has declined. Natural calamities like the fires in Ukraine and floods in Australia, both food exporting nations, have also created a huge dent in assured grain supplies on the international market. Climate change will continue to take its toll on food production and supply as uncertainties rise. Availability of grain in the international market in the years to come is likely to take a further beating when countries hold back supplies to fulfil domestic needs due to climate turbulence caused upheavals in production. This happened in 2008 when countries like Thailand, Vietnam and India banned rice exports fearing shortages. This led to a shrinking of global rice supply and rice became unavailable for food imports and crisis relief.[10] Such developments have led to severely diminished food stocks on the global market, further adding to expense and unreliability. In addition to all these reasons, there is the most basic one – food security is only possible with food sovereignty. It is only when we are self-reliant in food production that we can be truly food secure.

Despite all these developments and food production getting pushed into an increasingly difficult place, the advocates of the food security bill wander around in wonderland  hoping that someone will hand them a large pot of grain from somewhere, which they can
then disburse in their preferred way.

Whatever little debate there is only skirts around the nitty gritty of distribution – whether it should be universal or targeted, and around the dangerous and highly undesirable concept of cash transfers. The proposed legislation largely bypasses both the larger picture and the crucial features that need to be addressed to achieve food security for all citizens. The one aspect that all agree on is that a component of food aid is essential for our legislation and that certain categories of people must be specially looked after.  Possibly, a universal system with self-exclusion, as in Tamil Nadu, should be our approach to food access.

The framers of this truncated draft law should realize that by shifting focus on increasing food production in a sustainable manner, many farmers who produce food would become either fully or partially food secure themselves. They would, thus, become either partially or completely independent of the government’s food support schemes, thus diminishing the burden on food stocks and reducing the numbers in need of food aid. Currently impoverished because agriculture is devastated, they swell the ranks of the BPL lists and have been reduced to seeking dole when they should actually be sovereign producers of food, able to feed their families and the rest of the nation.

Tackling food security will certainly mean treading on influential toes. Conflicts will arise over who will have preferential access to productive resources like land and water. Will Coca Cola get the water for its bottling plant or will farmers be given preference for cultivation? Will small farmers in the drylands get the required investments to create water bodies to enable them to take a second crop in the winter? The conflicts will be over such issues like fertilizer subsidies. Will Punjab, Haryana, western Uttar Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu continue as the principal beneficiaries of the government’s subsidies or will nutrient based subsidy be directed at poor quality soils in rain fed areas that most need  intervention? The smallest, most marginal farmers have the worst soils and the least access to water. A food security bill will have meaning only if it tries to swing things in their favour for them to become more productive.

The food security bill must tackle the fundamental question of common property resources and the right of access to them. It must be able to speak out against jatropha plantations on common lands that are  conveniently designated as ‘wasteland’. The biofuel produced in the name of clean energy takes away key grazing lands of herders and pastoralists, the place where they can park their livestock because they have no other land. It will also take away the source of leafy green vegetables and medicinal plants that the poor rely on only to grow fuel for the cars of the rich. Just as it will have to tackle the Coca Colas, the food security bill must also take a position against the conglomerates who are grabbing agricultural land in the name of special economic zones (SEZs) to set up industrial estates (or just corner real estate).

India’s most productive lands, the two crop and three crop zones, must be reserved for food production but these are being snapped up to build urban estates. If this is not stopped, where will we grow our food?

The food production part of the food security bill will have to focus on rain fed farming because that is where the big crisis has unfolded. It will have to define our adaptation priorities to ensure food security when faced with climate change. According to the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) report, the impact of climate change on food production will be most severe in Africa and South Asia, especially their rain fed areas.[11] We cannot continue to behave as though this is someone else’s problem even as we debate the finer points of universal versus targeted distribution of food grains, and believe that someone will step in and make the climate problem go away. security legislation and incentives provided to improve the lagging coverage. The emphasis on motivating the communities is well intended but not enough. It must be accompanied by financial support to achieve targets.

According to UNICEF, the combined effect of inadequate sanitation and unsafe drinking water is responsible for 88 per cent of childhood deaths from diarrhoea; out of every thousand children born, about seventy die before they reach five years of age.[12] Poor sanitation and unsafe drinking water also cause intestinal worm infections, which lead to malnutrition, anaemia and retarded growth among children, condemning them to  inadequacy for the rest of their lives.

The fact is that to draft a truly comprehensive food security bill, a lot of people will have to be asked to give up some of what they have cornered. The bill under consideration clearly fights shy of that. Instead of fiddling with the easiest of the three broad sectors that constitute food security, the government must demonstrate commitment and take on the challenge of drafting a sound, inclusive legislation, focusing on the tough areas of food production and clean water and sanitation, along with distribution.

If the government is serious about achieving zero hunger, it must commit 20 per cent of the national GDP to the agriculture sector until hunger has been banished and bring in a law that lays out a road map to comprehensively tackle the food and nutrition question. Short of that, the food security bill will likely be seen as a political gimmick rather than an effort at governance that is just and equitable.

Source: SEMINAR 6 3 4 – J u n e 2 0 1 2

* Suman Sahai has several years of research and teaching experience in genetics. She works with Gene Campaign, a research and advocacy organization working on food and livelihood security and can be reached at and

[2] Sunil Prabhu, ‘Cabinet Clears Food Security Bill; to be Introduced in Parliament in this Session’, NDTV. Com, 18 December 2011. Accessed on 10 May 2012.
[3] ‘Government to Take States on Board Over Food Security Bill’, The Economic Times, 10 January 2012. http://articles.economic Accessed on 10 May 2012.
[4] Nationl Commission on Farmers (NCF), ‘Saving Farmers and Saving Farming’, in Towards Faster and  More Inclusive Growth of Farmers’ Welfare. Fifth and Final Report (2006), Government of India, Ministry of Agriculture, p. 42. Accessed on 10 May 2012.
[5] Report of the Expert Group on Agricultural Indebtedness. Ministry of Finance (MOF), Government of India, July 2007. Accessed on 10 May 2011.
[6] NSS 59th Round (January-December 2003), Situation Assessment Survey of Farmers: Some Aspects of Farming, p. 11. Report No 496(59/33/3). http://mospi.nic. in/mospi_ new/upload/496_final.pdf. Accessed
on 10 May 2012.
[7] Ibid., p. i.
[8]  M. Suchitra, ‘Farmers on Holiday’, Down to Earth, 15 July 2011. Accessed on 10 May 2012.
[9] Suman Sahai, M. Gautam, U. Sajjad, A. Kumar and J. Hill, ‘Impact on Farm Economics of Changing Seed Use. A Study in Jharkhand. Genecampaign. http://www.genecampaign. org/Sub%20pages/Seed%
20Study.pdf. Accesssed on 10 May 2012.
[10] M. Raja, ‘Asia Faces Growing Rice Crisis’, Asia Times Online, 14 February 2008. Accessed on 10 February
[11] Findings of the IPCC Fourth Assessment Report (2007), ‘Climate Change Impacts’. Accessed on 10 May 2012.

[12] UNICEF, A Report Card on Water and Sanitation (2006), ‘Progress for Children’. Accessed on 10 May 2012.

1 comment:

  1. Well written. The last paragraph really sums it up!!