A Roadmap to India’s Food Security in the 21st Century by Drishti Verma

By | March 11, 2020
A Roadmap to India’s Food Security in the 21st Century

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Food security is a fundamental part of India. 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. With the introduction of the Green Revolution, India has achieved self-sufficiency. However, this is not enough.

The issue of India’s food security broadly revolves around three dimensions: availability, accessibility, and affordability of food. Although there have been several reforms and policies introduced by the government from time to time, there’s a need to revamp our approach towards the issue of food security. The accessibility is not just about the quantity of food but also about qualitative food.

Affordability of food is another major concern which has two major root cause: poverty and food inflation. The concept of forwarding and backward linkage can help us in achieving sustainable food security.

Areas like agriculture, infrastructure, technology and innovation, education, environment, and sanitation have an overall impact on food security. Therefore, our efforts should be to improve these areas. A major reform can be initiated with the help of new technological advancements like securing better accessibility and affordability of food for all, therefore improving the health of our economy sustainably. 

“There are people in the world so hungry, that God cannot appear to them except in the form of bread” -Mahatma Gandhi

Every day, thousands of households are deprived of basic food needs. Children die from common illnesses like diarrhoea and pneumonia, women and girls suffer from anaemia and many others are a victim of stunting and wasting. The common reason for all the above conditions is a 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.

Why is Food Security Fundamental for India?

India is a country of more than 1.3 billion population to become 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 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 the 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, that aimed at ensuring food security, as legal entitlements, thus reflecting food as a fundamental right.

To ensure access to food for its citizens, the government has announced different policies and programs at different times. Some of the major steps being undertaken 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.

Need to Revamp the Persisting Issue

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”.

To understand the above definition, we need to first highlight the 3 dimensions of food security: availability, accessibility, and affordability of food. Let us look at each of these problems and how can we sustainably get over them.

Farm Productivity: A Regional Bias in Availability

Regional disparity in crop productivity (and therefore crop availability) is one of the many reasons for food insecurity being higher in some states than others. States like Punjab, Haryana and western region of Uttar Pradesh have higher agricultural productivity as compared to states like Maharashtra and Bihar.

According to a research on regional disparity in agricultural development and food availability done in the state of West Bengal, it was found that the districts with low agricultural productivity were more food insecure than the districts with higher productivity. Higher farm productivity in a region ensures lower costs of food and higher nutritional intake and thus, is directly proportional to the food security of the region.

Accessibility of Food: Quantitative and Qualitative

Food has been made accessible through the subsidy given to the BPL members with the help of ration cards. The PDS scheme in India has been reformed from PDS to RPDS to TPDS (Targeted PDS) and finally to the NFSA (National Food Security Act, 2013).

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. However, recent research published in the National Bureau of Economic Research shows that there was no direct impact of Aadhar in reducing leakages. Further, due to such a biometric authentication, 10% of genuine beneficiaries were denied rations.

Therefore, what we need is to adopt modern and innovative methods to correct them. The digitalization 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 also have the right to qualitative food. That is to say, we have a right to both nutritious as well as safe food.

For instance, 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.

To improve the nutritional outcomes among the most vulnerable section (in terms of undernourishment) of the society, the government had launched the Poshan Abhiyan (National Nutrition Mission) in 2017. However, according to a piece of recent information provided by the Ministry of Women and Child Development, the average utilization of the funds under this scheme is merely 29.97% while 32 states have utilized less than 50% of the funds released (as of October 21, 2019). In such a situation, the government must think over the reforms such as zero-based budgeting which will help in better utilization 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 which is 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 not only good as a biofuel but also a positive step towards creating awareness to lessen the use of reused cooking oil since it has a high amount of trans fat. Efforts should be done to create awareness and encourage people to move from junk foods to superfoods that are rich in nutritional content.

Status of Food Affordability in India

According to the 2018 data provided by the Ministry of Consumer Affairs, Food and Public Distribution, 80.72 crore persons have been provided highly subsidized food grains at Rs.1/2/3 per kg. Such a large portion of our population being benefitted under PDS reflects the level of unaffordability to access unsubsidized food.

There are two broad reasons for this:

  • First, poverty, leading to a very less amount of disposable income and lesser awareness about nutritional diets. Social inequality leading to exclusion and marginalization, illiteracy, unequal distribution of wealth and persistent corruption are some of the reasons pushing up the level of poverty in the society.
  • Second, food Inflation is another major cause of unaffordability.

Although the price volatility of wheat and rice have remained quite stable since 2014, this has not been the same for vegetables like tomato and onion, pulses and sugar. The factors for such high price volatility are a demand-supply mismatch, stockholding, speculations and perishable nature of these goods.

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.

Achieving Food Security: Forward and Backward Linkage

While fixing a problem, we tend to concentrate on that specific issue only 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 that have a direct or indirect impact on India’s food security and improving those areas which ultimately help India move from food insecurity to food security.

  • First, agriculture, a key area that has a direct impact on food security. Better mechanization of agricultural, 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.

Improving the allied sector will also help generate income for marginalized farmers along with diversifying the food basket. Incentivising farmers to move towards organic farming will help in improving the health of the population since organic foods are considered to be more nutritious, free from preservatives and pesticides.

  • The second most important sector that needs our focus is Infrastructure. As of July 1, 2019, grain stocks were almost 81% above the buffer stock and strategic reserve norms. Due to such 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 the decentralization 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 the transportation costs, pilferage and damage caused to the food grains. Investment in the agricultural infrastructure will help in lowering down the crop prices while also generate employment opportunities to the poor.

  • Third, technology and innovation: 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. However, this shift from traditional to modern techniques cannot be in one go. It has to be a step-by-step process because of the various challenges such as lack of digital literacy, poor network availability.

We need to spend more on R&D, incentivize youth towards innovations, provide required skills and training to operate and maintain the modern tools. For instance, problems like food inflation due to its perishable nature can be overcome with the help of technologies.

Investments in developing technology base food processing units, Smart Packaging and speedy transport will lead to value addition to such perishable goods. Other technologies like 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.

  • Another dimension which we often don’t think to be important is ‘Education’. Although the government must provide us with safe and healthy food, this should not make the citizens abstain 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 digitalization can help bring in more transparency and thereby, good governance.

Finally, achieving food security will have a positive impact on various dimensions (forward linkage concept) 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. However, before introducing it universally, we need to strengthen our technology, provide training to the implementing authorities and build better infrastructure.

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.

By – Drishti Verma, Gargi College, University of Delhi


References


  1. National Legislative Drafting and Review Competition 2020