Food security issues

Print edition : November 21, 2003

Towards a Food Secure India: Issues and Policies, Edited by S. Mahendra Dev, K.P. Kannan and Nira Ramachandran; Institute for Human Development, New Delhi, and Centre for Economic and Social Studies, Hyderabad, 2003; pages 464, Rs.750.

THIS is a significant publication in terms of the theme it deals with, the information it conveys and the wide range of issues it discusses. The theme dealt with is not only important, but also disturbing. More than half a century after the country became independent and launched a series of programmes and policies to ensure a tolerable level of standard of living for its citizens, over 50 per cent of the population, perhaps even as high as 70 per cent, cannot be said to be secure from the point of view of food and nutrition. Not that the country is not producing enough. The fact is that millions of tonnes of foodgrain is rotting in godowns while hundreds of millions of people do not have enough to eat. One of the contributors to the volume writes: "Under the cover of `food security' the government is keeping millions of tonnes of food out of reach of the people." It is both a paradox and a scandal. The 21 papers in this volume authored by some 30 scholars deal with different aspects of this complex theme.

The globally recognised definition of food security is access to food at the household level at all times to ensure a healthy and active life for all its members. The household is accepted as the unit for consideration, rather than, let us say, a country or an administrative subunit of it because for food security to be meaningful, food must not only be available at these higher levels, but must be accessible at the lowest unit, the household, and indeed every single member within it too. In fact, a central aspect of food security is the discrepancy between availability (at a higher level) and accessibility (at the lowest level). The paradox or scandal noted above is a manifestation of that discrepancy.

Consider the situation in our country. Foodgrain production increased from around 50 million tonnes at the time of Independence to over 200 million tonnes in recent years. Although what was being produced at the time of Independence and for a couple of decades thereafter was not adequate to meet the caloric requirements of the people, we have now reached a situation where, if what is produced is distributed equally, the minimum requirements of all can be met in spite of the tremendous increase in population over more than half a century. In no part of the world is the foodgrains equally distributed, but the hypothetical calculation goes to show that availability is not the main issue. Calculations show that in the future also, say in 2030 or 2050, the situation is likely to be similar. Not that all matters relating to availability have been solved. But India, though still in the low ranks in terms of per capita availability of food, has reached the stage where, as far as food security is concerned, the accent can be, and has to be, on access of different sections of the population to what is available.

Access, of course, is concerned with distribution, but distribution is much more than a physical act. It is concerned with prices on the one hand and earnings or income on the other. It is also related to many activities of the government - procurement, subsidies and public distribution directly, and employment policies, welfare schemes and much more indirectly. Food security, therefore, is not merely a matter of agricultural activities, but is related to many social and political aspects. The book deals with these complex sets of issues and their manifestations at the national, regional and selected local levels, going down to villages in some cases.

The beginning of official food security policy in the country can be traced to the period of the Second World War when the sudden fall in the quantum of rice that used to come into the country, especially from Burma (Myanmar), made it necessary to resort to the rationing of available supply. The arrangement continued after Independence because of the persisting scarcity of foodgrains. Once the Green Revolution of the late 1960s increased the availability of foodgrains, rationing could have been removed, but public intervention in the production and distribution of foodgrains continued for two reasons. The first was that farmers had to be assisted to go in for the more costly kind of production that the Green Revolution involved, and when output increased but demand failed to increase correspondingly because of mass poverty, they had to be assured a minimum support price by the government buying grain from them. Secondly, after the official poverty line was accepted in terms of calorie intake and it was calculated that more than 50 per cent of the population was below even this low-level poverty line, making food accessible to the masses became a matter of social and political imperative. The answer was a subsidised public distribution system (PDS) making use of the grain that the government was buying or had to buy. Since then, PDS and the subsidy involved in it have been a matter of discussion in the country.

A major issue that the book examines is whether the subsidy goes to the farmers from whom the government buys (naturally the larger and better-off farmers) and to the cost of holding stocks in godowns, or it reaches the poor by keeping PDS prices substantially lower than market prices. Holding some stock of foodgrains is a must in a country where the output varies enormously depending on weather conditions, but as against the less than 20 million tonnes recommended for this purpose, the actual has been well over 60 million tonnes in recent years. In spite of that, the minimum support price has been moving up at a rate faster than the rate of inflation. At the same time, the offtake for the PDS from the bulging stock has been coming down, partly because the increasing PDS prices make it not particularly attractive to purchase from that source. Subsidy, therefore, reaches but little to those for whom it is allegedly being given.

This is a major problem as far as food security is concerned. Since the PDS plays, or is meant to play, the central role in the public arrangement for food security, many papers in the volume deal with its performance. With reference to different States - Kerala, a deficit State in terms of foodgrains, where the PDS reaches out to practically the entire population; Andhra Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh, which are food-surplus States but with very pronounced regional imbalances; Bihar, Rajasthan and the northeastern States with special problems of their own - the functioning of the PDS is critically examined. The overall finding is that with the possible exception of Kerala, the PDS plays only a very modest role in assuring food security, especially for the poor who need support most.

With this in view a couple of papers pay special attention to the recently introduced Targeted Public Distribution System (TPDS). As is well known, the TPDS has been an attempt to limit the coverage of public distribution to those below the poverty line (BPL) by substantially excluding those above the poverty line (APL) from it. The procedure has been to sort out between BPL and APL on the basis of an income criterion (per family) and to make more grain available at a cheaper rate to the former. It appears to be the right thing to do at once to benefit the `real' poor and to reduce public expenditure for the programme. However, it has been cogently argued that if food security to those who deserve it is the objective, the TPDS is a wrong instrument. The main reason is that malnutrition and under-nourishment are widely prevalent even among many people who, from a mere income perspective, are considered to be not poor. The underlying reason for it is that the poverty line as we have officially identified is only concerned with a certain minimum nutritional level (and its rupee equivalent) whereas a family has to spend on many other items such as housing, clothing, transportation, education and health from the income it earns. Consider a family whose members work in an urban area but cannot afford to live near the workplace. Since it has to spend at least on clothing and transport even to earn that income, it may give a higher priority for such expenses than for food. The women, particularly, those who in our social system become residual claimants of food in the family, can be seriously undernourished when such is the case.

Using such considerations, it has been shown that while income-poverty line may identify about 35 per cent of the population as the target group for food security, broader, but more appropriate, identification of those who need food security may make the target group as high as 70 per cent of the population. The question then is whether a narrower targeting should be adopted (to reduce public expenditure) that will exclude many who deserve support or go in for a more inclusive system of food security which, obviously, will be financially more demanding.

This review cannot and therefore does not aim to deal fully with the large number of topics relating to food security examined in the volume. However, at least two more deserve to be noted. The first is that if the food security of the poor is taken seriously, many changes need to be introduced in the present approach. The public distribution system now deals with wheat and rice, among cereals. These, however, are superior grains from the point of view of the poor. The so-called inferior cereals, which are the staple diet of the poorer sections, also should be brought in if the intention is to benefit the poor. Not that the poor are not entitled to get or move to superior grain. But if needs are to be met where they exist, one has to take into account the reality of the situation. If that is done, or is to be done, considerable decentralisation of the PDS will be called for not only in terms of the location of PDS outlets, but in terms of the procurement, storing and even the administrative unit for the identification of the poor. Should it not at least be the district rather than the State as at present?

Second, food security is not a matter of cereals alone. Evidence that is available over time, via the National Sample Surveys, for instance, shows that as incomes increase, there is a tendency to move out of cereals and to diversify food to include more vegetables and fruits, milk and milk products and the like. This is a welcome sign because food security in the broad sense calls for diversity in the items of food. But it also means that appropriate restructuring of production and trade patterns is called for. Some papers in the volume pay special attention to these aspects, including the implications of the Agreement on Agriculture (AoA) with the World Trade Organisation (WTO).

This latest offering of the Institute for Human Development and Centre for Economic and Social Studies must be heartily welcomed and widely used.

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