Considerable sections of the urban population may face serious food insecurity even while the urban economy grows. There is a need for urgent action on this front.

Over the two decades of rapid growth of the Indian economy, the urban economy is generally perceived as having done very well. However, high urban economic growth need not by itself imply improved living standards for all urban residents. In particular, the recent and continuing phenomenon of rising food prices reminds us that considerable sections of the urban population may face serious food insecurity even while the urban economy grows rapidly.

Evidence from the National Sample Surveys of 1993-94, 1999-2000 and 2004-05, ably marshaled by the National Commission for Enterprises in the Unorganised Sector (NCEUS), has shown that the rate of growth of employment in urban India fell sharply between 1993-94 and 1999-2000 as compared to the period 1987-88 to 1993-94, but it picked up smartly in the period 1999-2000 to 2004-05. However, practically the entire growth of employment in this latter period was in informal work, and the quality of employment, as indicated by wage/income levels, insecurity, other conditions of work and coverage in terms of social protection, was extremely poor. This has serious implications for urban food insecurity, since a large segment of the urban working population is mostly without productive assets and relies primarily on wage or marginal self employment to survive. In other words, a large segment of the urban population faces food insecurity in terms of access to food. Such employment-linked food insecurity is especially severe in small and medium towns which have been largely bypassed in the urban growth that has occurred.

Rapid growth of the urban economy, largely unplanned, has also meant haphazard growth of urban centres and proliferation of urban slums lacking in basic amenities such as decent shelter, safe drinking water and toilets and sanitary facilities. This has implications for the absorption dimension of food security, since lack of safe drinking water and sanitation leads to poor biological utilisation of food and repeated episodes of morbidity.

A recently completed study of urban food insecurity explores these issues through an exercise of constructing an Index of urban food insecurity for the major States (M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation, Chennai (2010), Report on the State of Food Insecurity in Urban India, being released in Delhi on September 25). Using several outcome indicators such as the incidence of anaemia and chronic energy deficiency among women in the fertile age group, and of anaemia and stunting/underweight among children below three years of age, as well as some input indicators such as the percentage of urban population without access to safe drinking water and that without access to toilets, the study shows that the period of economic reforms and high GDP growth has not seen an unambiguous improvement in urban food security across all States.

A comparison of the Index values for the periods 1998-2000 and 2004-06 suggests a rather modest improvement of the urban food security situation as measured by official data. But there should be a qualifying remark: that the data on access to safe drinking water and to toilets may in many cases overstate the actual access on the ground, in view of the reality of non-functioning or provision, or inadequate functioning or provision.

The overall marginal improvement in urban food security in India as measured by the composite Index in all its variants is accompanied by a significant improvement in the poorer States. The fact that the picture looks much less rosy when a purely outcomes-based measure is used suggests that there is no room for complacency on the issue of urban food security. If anything, it is disappointing that urban economic growth has made little dent on urban food insecurity.

While the poorer States have done better than before, they account for only a small part of the country's urban population. On the other hand, States such as Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Haryana, which are relatively more urbanised, have done poorly. This suggests that the food security situation may have worsened rather than improved for a sizeable segment of the urban population between 1998-2000 and 2004-06. Considering that urban inequality has worsened in the period since 1991, the implications for the food security status of the urban poor or slum-dwellers are worrying.

What can the government do to address the challenge of urban food security?

Points for Action

Expansion of productive and remunerative employment needs to be enabled through special assistance to the numerous small and tiny enterprises in the urban economy from credit to marketing support to infrastructure provision, along the lines suggested by the NCEUS. Based on an Urban Employment Guarantee Act, urban employment schemes can be designed and integrated in a synergistic manner with the need to improve urban amenities, especially in the small and medium towns.

Urgent action is needed to improve access to safe drinking water and to toilets. Special attention needs to be paid in this regard to small and medium towns which happen to be most poorly provided for in this respect.

Interventions in flagship programmes such as the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM) and other urban schemes should focus on the needs of small and medium towns and on the needs of slums in all cities, taking care to address the needs of the poor with regard to shelter, water, sanitation, drainage and nutrition education. Urban infrastructure cannot and must not mean only flyovers and six-lane roads in the metropolitan cities.

The urban Public Distribution System must be made universal. However, it is important to recognise that the PDS is only a part of a comprehensive food security strategy. Policy must address hidden hunger. It must also address the special needs of the vulnerable sections such as street children, orphans, HIV-AIDS patients and so on through such initiatives as community kitchens. Designing and implementing a nutrition literacy movement across all urban centres will also be worthwhile.

Promotion of urban and peri-urban agriculture, especially horticulture, can make a vital contribution to food and nutrition security. It can also be a source of sustainable livelihoods. Issues of governance in urban food and nutrition programmes need to be addressed through, among other things, democratic decentralisation and local body capacity-building.

Finally, urban food security is as much a matter of the fiscal policy framework as it is of programme implementation on the ground, and a precondition to achieve targeted outcomes is adequate outlays. Economic reforms therefore need to be ‘reformed' if inclusive urban development that addresses the needs of urban food security for all is to occur.

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