poor monsoons and prevailing drought conditions in large
parts of the country have once again turned the attention
of policy makers to the problems of agriculture and
food security. But they have also created tendencies
to postpone some important decisions and commitments
which are now more necessary than ever.
The UPA government promised us a new Food Security Bill,
which was to be part of its 100 days agenda. The need
for food security is obvious, even though it was underplayed
in the last decade. As a nation, we have become uncomfortably
aware of the difficulties of entering the global market
to purchase food in periods of highly volatile prices,
when even talk of imports by India can itself cause
an immediate spike in price. This has created all sorts
of anomalies: on more than one occasion the government
has had to purchase imported food grain or sugar at
prices higher than those at which they have procured
from Indian farmers.
Meanwhile food security of households is in a parlous
state. Inadequate and even worsening conditions of nutrition
have been a concomitant feature of recent economic growth.
India already had among the worst nutrition indicators
in the world (with those in some states like Bihar and
Madhya Pradesh well below even the average of Sub-Saharan
Africa), even before the persistent increase in food
prices reduced the ability of many more households to
access sufficient food.
Yet the version of the proposed ''Right to Food'' bill
that has been circulated by the central government to
the states is a travesty of the original promise, and
a negation of the spirit of ensuring genuine food security.
While the Bill is still under discussion, the Note that
has been sent to state governments makes several suggestions
that are quite unacceptable, such as confining the provisions
to the Below Poverty Line population (which itself is
to be pruned according to central estimates rather than
relying on states’ own estimates) and ensuring only
25 kg per month per household instead of the current
And now the Food and Agriculture Minister has declared
that in view of the drought, even this pathetic attempt
at legal intervention has to be postponed for a year.
Yet it is precisely in drought conditions, when both
production and livelihoods are affected, that it is
most important to ensure that food consumption among
the population is maintained through public intervention.
There are some important points that need to be noted
in any discussion of food security. First, a targeted
approach that seeks to restrict food security to some
defined poor households is cumbersome, expensive and
ineffective. There are the well known errors inherent
in targeting, of unjustified exclusion of the genuinely
poor and unwarranted inclusion of the non-poor. 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. And in any case, households – and
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,
it is actually impossible.
Second, the notion that a universal scheme that provides
subsidised food to all households is too expensive is
not tenable either. Consider the maximal possible estimate
of such spending. If all households in the country are
provided 35 kg of foodgrain per month, that would come
to around 90 million tonnes. At current levels of subsidy
this would cost around Rs 120,000 crore. This may seem
like a lot, but the current food subsidy already amounts
to around Rs 50,000 crore, so this is an additional
Rs 70,000 crore – or around 1.5 per cent of GDP.
Surely this is not too much to allocate to ensure that
no one goes hungry in what should be a civilised society?
In any case, compare the amount of Rs 70,000 with the
huge amounts (nearly Rs 300,000 crore) that have been
given away as tax benefits and other concessions to
corporate over the past year, and it becomes a trivial
Third, any programme of national food security must
be combined with a concentrated focus on improving food
grain production in the country, so that we are not
dependent upon imports in a volatile global market.
This requires much more attention to the requirements
of farmers, and speedy implementation of the many reforms
that have already been suggested by the Farmers’ Commission
to improve the productivity and financial viability
of farming, particularly of food crops.
Fourth, to make this successful it is also necessary
to avoid instability in domestic prices of food grain
and curb speculative tendencies. This does not simply
mean cracking down on hoarders, which is part of the
official publicity around any period of price rise.
It also requires preventing speculative activity in
futures markets, which means that there must be a ban
on futures markets in all essential commodities.
These are all necessary and also eminently doable measures
– but only if the central government is actually serious
about ensuring real food security on the country.