Madhura Swaminathan

The Plan must have a goal of providing food security to all Indians. The public distribution system must be strengthened and made universal.

INDIA HAS more persons suffering endemic or chronic hunger, whether measured by calorie intake or anthropometric indicators of malnutrition, than any other country. One-third of the world's malnourished children are in India. The rate of decline in the absolute number of malnourished persons has been very slow, and slower than the rate agreed upon at the World Food Summit in Rome. The Mid-term Appraisal of the Planning Commission admits that India has failed to meet the targets set for itself in the Millennium Development Goals (MDG). On the nutrition front, the MDG target for 2005 was to achieve a situation where 27 per cent of children were malnourished; the actual achievement was 46 per cent.

Data from the National Sample Surveys show a clear trend of decline in calorie intake. In rural India, the average calorie intake per capita a day fell from 2,266 Kcal in 1972-73 to 2,183 in 1993-94, and further to 2,149 in 1999-2000. Among the lowest 30 per cent of rural households in respect of consumer expenditure, the per capita calorie intake fell from 1,830 Kcal in 1989 to 1,600 Kcal in 1998. In 1999-2000, almost 77 per cent of the rural population consumed less than the poverty line calorie requirement of 2,400 calories. The data also show a decline in cereal intake, a phenomenon clearly driven by distress rather than choice since it has occurred in a situation of declining overall calorie intake and persistence of high levels of malnutrition.

In this context of mass chronic hunger and malnutrition, it is shocking to find that the newly released draft of the Approach Paper for the Eleventh Plan (Towards Faster and More Inclusive Growth, An Approach to the 11th Five Year Plan, Government of India, Planning Commission, June 14, 2006), does not once mention food and nutrition security.


In my view, the Eleventh Plan must have an explicit and concrete goal of "a hunger-free India" or "food and nutrition security for all." To be genuinely inclusive, the Plan must have a goal of providing food security to all Indians, that is, universal food security. This will require a focus on much more than a higher rate of economic growth.


To ensure food security, we have to ensure adequate supply (also called availability) as well as intake. Intake by individuals depends on many factors, most importantly on purchasing power and availability of food of appropriate quantity and quality at affordable prices. In this note, we do not discuss the strategy for expansion of incomes and employment.

Food supply

The decline in per capita net availability of cereals and pulses over the last 15 years (from 510 grams per capita a day in 1991 to 463 gm in 2004) has been unprecedented. The agricultural strategy of the Eleventh Plan must aim to increase the availability of cereals and pulses and ensure self-sufficiency in production.

At the national level, a major achievement on the agricultural front in the post-Independence period has been the expansion of food grain production, enabling the country to acquire a degree of self-sufficiency in cereals production. While a few years ago, it appeared that there was no threat to self-sufficiency in food grain production, the situation is more worrisome now.

The estimates made of the requirement of cereals in 2020 range from 224 million tonnes (Dyson and Hanchate) to 296 million tonnes (Bhalla, Hazell, and Kerr). The High Level Committee on Long Term Grain policy (Abhijit Sen Committee) arrived at an intermediate projection of 260 million tonnes. To achieve this, starting from the production level of 191 million tonnes of cereals in 2004-05, in the next 15 years production will have to increase by 69 million tonnes to meet the demand of 2020. In the last 15 years, cereals' production increased by about 29 million tonnes. In the next 15 years, the achievement has to be doubled. The present rate of growth of cereal and food grain production will not be adequate to meet these demands. Major changes are needed in terms of agricultural strategy, as spelt out in the Reports of the National Commission on Farmers.

India will have to aim for self-sufficiency in cereals (on average), while not ruling out occasional imports. The people of India cannot depend on imports for basic food requirements. Dependence on international trade for basic food requirements, as past experience has shown, has not only economic costs but can cost us our political sovereignty. The price being paid currently for imports of wheat is no less than the economic cost of the Food Corporation of India (that is, the cost that includes all costs of storage, transport and distribution). Since a large majority of our population continues to depend on agriculture for incomes and employment, the option of imports (even in the unlikely event of being cheaper) has to be weighed against the collapse of livelihoods of millions of small cultivators and peasants.

To ensure the desired land use, the mass of small producers will have to be assured a decent income. For producers of cereals, particularly rice and wheat, the policy of open-ended procurement at minimum support prices (MSP) provided a guarantee of purchase at a reasonable price, and encouraged adoption of technological change and promoted higher production. In the Eleventh Plan, minimum support price and procurement policy should be expanded to provide effective price support in areas with future production potential (including production of minor millets and coarse cereals in dryland areas) while also ensuring that the MSPs for a range of crops encourage a balanced mix of crop production. In developing countries, direct income support is not feasible and price support is required to guarantee a floor price and a remunerative income to cultivators. The recommendation of the Abhijit Sen committee to make MSP statutory is an important and necessary step.

Food intake

Ultimately, food security has to be ensured at the micro level, that is, to each individual. The two main pillars of any strategy of food security must be to ensure adequate economic (be it through employment or income transfers) and physical access to food. Since the household is the basic unit of residence and consumption expenditure, a well-functioning universal public distribution system (PDS) can be the means to ensure adequate physical access to food at affordable prices at the household level.

In 1997, the universal PDS was abolished and a Targeted PDS introduced in its place. The Government of India initiated a policy of narrow targeting to households with incomes below the official poverty line. Targeting resulted in dual Central issue prices: prices for BPL consumers and prices for APL consumers. It is clear that the Targeted PDS has not been effective in ensuring food security to the needy. There are many problems with the Targeted PDS; the most relevant among them are the following. First, targeting has led to the large-scale exclusion of genuinely needy persons from the PDS (and from the BPL category). Secondly, targeting has affected the functioning and economic viability of the PDS network adversely and led to a collapse of the delivery system. Thirdly, TPDS has failed to achieve the objective of price stabilisation through transfer of cereals from surplus to deficit regions of the country.

As an evaluation by the Planning Commission points out, the present system of targeting in the PDS has excluded large sections of the needy population of our country: 57 per cent of BPL households were not included in the Targeted PDS. These errors arise out of conceptual as well as operational problems in the definition of poverty.

The present policy of targeting based on the poverty line must be ended and replaced by a more inclusive policy of universal distribution. In a country where hundreds of millions are malnourished and the majority of people are food insecure, a universal system is the one that will ensure inclusion of all the needy.

The Eleventh Plan must clearly strengthen the public distribution system and ensure that basic food commodities (e.g., rice, wheat, minor cereals, pulses, cooking oil, and salt) are available at reasonable price and quality to all those who wish to utilise the system. Further, the whole gamut of policies affecting prices of basic foods (such as buffer stocking, inter-State movement of grain and private stocking of grain, futures trading) has to be reviewed.

The PDS has to be supplemented by specific food and nutrition interventions to address the specific consumption needs of different types of individuals, such as infants, children, teenage girls, manual workers, pregnant and lactating women, and the elderly.

Finally, the nutritional status of an individual will be determined not only by the intake of food but by the quality of drinking water, health of the person, and environmental hygiene. To address the problem of malnutrition, these issues also need to be addressed, and the strategy of the Eleventh Plan must ensure that clean drinking water, toilets, drainage facilities, basic health services, etc., are available to all persons at a low cost.