India achieved self-sufficiency in food grains in the 1970s. It has consistently been able to provide enough food for its entire population since the mid-1990s, with a decline in production between 2014 and 2016 caused by drought. But India needs to take various new and improved initiatives to enhance and improve its food security as it faces supply constraints, water scarcity, low per capita GDP, and inadequate irrigation. India ranked 76th in 113 countries assessed by The Global Food Security Index (GFSI) in 2018, based on four parameters – affordability, availability, quality, and safety.
Food security is a complex phenomenon affected by a range of factors, including poverty, income distribution, international trade, agricultural development, policies and programmes of the government, population growth, and climatic conditions. Poverty, though, is the main cause of food insecurity. It results in malnutrition, undernourishment, and various health issues. Developing countries, especially India, face a constant problem of food insecurity due to economic backwardness.
Despite various schemes and programmes, the biggest challenge remains ensuring nutritional and enough food for the entire population. The Public Distribution System (PDS), Integrated Child Development Scheme (ICDS), Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employee Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS), Antyodaya Anna Yojana (AAY), etc, have all failed to reach every section of society while hunger continues to worsen the situation of poor people. The International Food Policy Research Institution (IFPR) has classified the status of hunger in five categories: low, moderate, serious, alarming, and extremely alarming. India falls into the category of alarming. Studies have indicated that consumption and expenditure on food grain have decreased in recent years due to an increase in food prices and enlargement in the consumption of non-food items.
Despite the economic growth in recent years, one-third of India’s population still lives below the poverty line. All these indicators point to food insecurity at the micro-level in terms of either lack of economic access to food or lack of consumption of food for a healthy life.
The Government of India introduced The National Food Security Act in 2013 (NFSA). It includes the midday meal scheme, the Integrated Child Development Services scheme, and the Public Distribution System. Further, the NFSA recognises maternity entitlements. The main problem in the implementation of the NFSA is how to identify the beneficiaries. Although the Act purposes to cover 67 percent of the population, it does not provide any identification criteria based on which beneficiaries will be chosen. The socio-economic and caste census (SECC) data can give some direction on how this can be done, but it does not provide a clear estimate. Instead of identifying the poor, it would be better to adopt an ‘inclusive approach’ in which all poor and marginalised populations are included and rich people are kept out. This requires proper verification and counter checks by various departments without scope of corruption. Otherwise, the NFSA will fail to reach its beneficiary or target population.
The overall impact of ICDS and MDM scheme on malnutrition has remained very limited due to a meagre allocation of resources, faulty projects, and carelessness in implementation. The poor quality of food served under MDM in many schools in different states across the country is a serious cause of concern. In 2012, food served in schools run by the Delhi municipal corporation was found to be nutritionally deficient in 83 percent of the meals. Moreover, utensils and dining areas were often found to be unclean and unhygienic.
The most serious problem in ICDS is related to implementation and accountability. Since children have no ‘voice’ in the system, there is no self-correction mechanism. There is rampant corruption in each phase of the implementation of ICDS projects.
The PDS (Public Distribution System) was established to provide essential food grains at cheap and subsidised prices. The main agency which provides food grains to the PDS is the Food Corporation of India (FCI), set up in 1965. Its primary duty is to undertake the purchase, storage, movement, distribution, and sale of food grains and other foodstuff. But the PDS has been criticised on various grounds. The main purpose of the PDS was to manage and distribute food stock to the poorest of the poor so that hunger and malnutrition can be eradicated. But it was found that the poorest people were the least benefited: only 20% of BPL households are provided food through the PDS. Another criticism of PDS is the burden of food subsidy, which puts several fiscal burdens on the government. There is also inefficiency in the operations of FCI which The Bureau of Industrial Costs and Prices (BICP) has pointed out. The economic cost of FCI operations has been rising because of an increase in procurement prices and distribution and transport costs. The inefficiencies in the operations of FCI are due to its highly centralised and bureaucratic mode of operation. To rectify this, experts advocate the ‘toning up’ of the personnel on the one hand while reorganising the food security system on the other hand. Another flaw in the PDS is that the ration cards are provided to only those who have local residential addresses. Migrant labourers and the homeless are thus left out of the food security system.
The writer is a research scholar at University of Kashmir. [email protected]