The goal of food for all can be achieved only through greater and integrated attention to production, procurement, preservation and public distribution.
The President, in her address to Parliament on June 4, 2009, announced: “My Government proposes to enact a new law — the National Food Security Act — that will provide a statutory basis for a framework which assures food security for all. Every family below the poverty line in rural as well as urban areas will be entitled, by law, to 25 kg of rice or wheat per month at Rs. 3 per kg. This legislation will also be used to bring about broader systemic reform in the public distribution system.”
Since then, various arms of the government as well as civil society organisations have been working to help redeem this pledge. The National Advisory Council (NAC) headed by Sonia Gandhi recently provided a broad framework to achieve the goal of food for all and forever. The NAC's suggestions include the swift initiation of programmes to insulate pregnant and nursing mothers, infants in the age group of zero to three, and other disadvantaged citizens, from hunger and malnutrition. Such special nutrition support programmes may need annually about 10 million tonnes of foodgrains. The NAC has stressed that in the design of the delivery system there should be a proper match between challenge and response, as for example, the starting of community kitchens in urban areas to ensure that the needy do not go to bed hungry. Pregnant women should get priority.
The NAC has proposed a phased programme of implementation of the goal of universal public distribution system. This will start with either one-fourth of the districts or blocks in 2011-12 and cover the whole country by 2015, on lines similar to that adopted for the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Programme (MGNREGP). This will provide time to develop infrastructure such as grain storage facilities and Village Knowledge Centres and the issue of Household Entitlements Passbooks. The NAC is developing inputs for the proposed Food Security Act covering legal entitlements and enabling provisions based on the principle of common but differentiated entitlements, taking into account the unmet needs of the underprivileged.
The food security legislation will be the most significant among the laws enacted by Parliament. It will mark the fulfillment of Mahatma Gandhi's call for a hunger-free India. It should lend itself to effective implementation, in letter and spirit. This will call for attention to four pre-requisites. These are food production, procurement, preservation and public distribution.
Production: India faces a formidable task on the food production front. Production should be adequate to provide balanced diet for over 1.2 billion persons. Over a billion cattle and other farm animals need feed and fodder. The recommendations of the National Commission on Farmers (NCF) made in five reports submitted to the Minister of Agriculture between 2004 and 2006, and the National Policy for Farmers placed in Parliament in November 2007 need to be implemented. These provide a road map to strengthen the ecological-economic foundations for sustainable advances in productivity and production and impart an income orientation to farming, helping bridge the gap between potential and actual yields and income in farming systems. Since land and water are shrinking resources, and climate change is a real threat, the NCF has urged the spread of conservation and climate-resilient farming. A conservation-cultivation-consumption-commerce chain should be promoted in every block. This will call for technological and skill upgradation of farming practices. Methods to achieve a small farm management revolution that will result in higher productivity, profitability and stability under irrigated and rain-fed conditions are detailed.
The widening of the food basket through the inclusion of nutritious millets, the mainstreaming of nutritional considerations in the National Horticulture Mission, and the consumption of salt fortified with iron and iodine will help reduce chronic protein-energy under-nutrition and hidden hunger caused by the dietary deficiency of micronutrients such as iron, iodine, zinc, Vitamin A and Vitamin B12. A sustainable food security system can be developed only with home-grown food, not imports.
Procurement: Procurement should cover not only wheat and rice but also jowar, bajra, ragi, minor millets and pulses. When India started the High Yielding Varieties Programme in 1966, jowar, bajra and maize along with rice and wheat were included in the food basket in order to keep it wide. Community Grain Banks operated under the social oversight of Gram Sabhas will facilitate the purchase and storage of local grain. Farmers are now worried that the government may lower the minimum support price (MSP) to reduce the subsidy burden. This will kill the food security system. The MSP should be according to the NCF formula of C2 (that is, the total cost of production) plus 50 per cent. The actual procurement price should be fixed at the time of harvest, taking into account the escalation in the cost of inputs like diesel since the time the MSP was announced. Unlike in developed countries, where hardly 2 per cent to 3 per cent of the people are farmers, the majority of consumers (over 60 per cent) in India are farmers. Their income security is vital for food security.
Preservation: Safe storage of procured grain is the weakest link in the food security chain. India is yet to develop a national grid of modern grain silos. Post-harvest losses are high in foodgrains and in perishable commodities such as vegetables and fruits. A Rural Godown Scheme was initiated in 1979, but it is yet to take off. The government called off the “Save Grain” campaign some years ago, ending a relevant programme in the context of food security.
Public Distribution: The strengths and weaknesses of India's public distribution system, the world's largest, are being discussed widely. Corruption and leakages are widespread. There are States such as Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Chhattisgarh where the PDS is being operated efficiently. The challenge is to learn from the models and convert the unique into the universal.
In the ultimate analysis, what is relevant for human health and productivity is nutrition-security at the level of each child, woman and man. India has to shift from viewing food security at the aggregate level to ensuring nutrition-security at the level of each individual. This will call for concurrent attention being paid to availability, access and absorption. Indian agriculture is in a state of crisis, both from the economic and ecological points of view. Unless attention is paid to soil health care and enhancement, water conservation and efficient use, adoption of climate resilient technologies, timely supply of needed inputs at affordable prices, credit and insurance, and producer-oriented marketing, a higher growth rate in agriculture cannot be realised.
In the area of access, the MGNREGP and the Food Security Act that seeks to ensure 35 kg of staple grain at Rs.3 a kg will help. This has to be combined with efforts to create avenues for market-driven non-farm enterprises. When China started its agricultural reform, a two-pronged strategy was adopted. It involved higher productivity and profitability of small farms and greater opportunities for non-farm employment and income through Township Village Enterprises. In India there is still a gross mismatch between production and post-harvest technologies. This results in the spoilage of foodgrains and missed opportunities for value addition and agro-processing. The use of agricultural biomass is generally wasteful and does not lead to the creation of jobs or income.
In the field of absorption of food in the body, it is important to ensure clean drinking water, sanitation and primary health care. Even in a State like Tamil Nadu where steps have been taken to ensure food availability at affordable cost, a food insecurity analysis done by the M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation (MSSRF) along with the World Food Programme shows that the level of food security is far better in households with toilets. The Rajiv Gandhi Drinking Water Mission, the Total Sanitation programme and the National Rural Health Mission are all important for food security.
India's global rank in the areas of poverty and malnutrition will continue to remain unenviable, so long as the country does not enable all its citizens to have a productive and healthy life. The Food Security Act holds out the last chance to save nearly 40 per cent of India's population from the hunger trap.
(Professor M.S. Swaminathan is a Member of Parliament, Rajya Sabha, and Chairman of the M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation.)