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Towards Food Security in India

In the last decade-and-a-half that India has successfully embraced economic reforms, a curious problem has haunted the country and vexed its policy makers: its excellent growth has had little impact on food security and nutrition levels of its population. Per capita availability as well as consumption of foodgrain has declined; the percentage of underweight children has remained stagnant between 1998 and 2006; and more than half of India’s women and three-quarters of its children are anaemic with no decline seen in the last eight years. These are appalling figures, which place India among the most “undernourished” countries.

According to the Economic Survey, foodgrain production in India has declined from 208 kg per annum per capita in 1996-97 to 186 kg in 2009-10, a decline of 11 per cent. This is even as the government has been exporting on an average 7 million tonnes of cereals per annum, causing availability to decline further by 15 per cent from 510 gm per day per capita in 1991 to 436 gm per capita in 2008.

Also, while the growth in foodgrain production has been lower than the increase in population between 1989 and 2004, the procurement of cereals on the government account increased, suggesting a decline in poor people’s consumption and their purchasing power. This may have happened because of the structural imbalances (high MSP, rising capital intensity, lack of land reforms, failure of poverty alleviation programmes, no new technological breakthrough in agriculture, etc.) or because of production problems in less endowed regions (erratic rainfall, soil erosion and water run-off, lack of access to credit and markets, poor communications, etc.). This led to a dangerous situation of a huge surplus in FCI godowns during 2000-03 coupled with widespread hunger. The public distribution system (PDS) thus became a mechanism both for disposal of surplus grain and for augmenting consumption of the poor. The trend of satisfactory economic growth, exports of rice and falling per capita production has continued even after 2004, leading to high open market prices and consequently increased food insecurity.

This was also a period when the cereal consumption of the rural rich went down, but there was no increase in its consumption by the poor.

This decline has to be understood as a distress phenomenon, as with marginal increase in their incomes over time, the poor are forced to cut down on their food consumption to meet other pressing demands, which were earlier not considered important, like education, transport and health. And, it is to meet such expenditure that food expenditure has to be cut down. Food is still needed, but not demanded for lack of money. The food budget of the poor has been squeezed out because the cost of meeting the minimum non-food requirements has increased. Thus, it is not possible for households around the poverty line to purchase their initial food basket within their current food budget.

Thus, the harsh truth is that endemic hunger continues to afflict a large proportion of the Indian population. Internationally, India is shown to be suffering from alarming hunger, ranking 66 out of the 88 developing countries studied by IFPRI in 2008. India, as part of the world community, has pledged to halve hunger by 2015, as stated in the Millennium Development Goal 1, but the present trends show that this target is unlikely to be met.

Policy Recommendations

N C Saxena, Distinguished Fellow,
Skoch Development Foundation

Food and nutritional insecurity is caused by a large number of factors and hence solutions too have to be multi-sectoral in nature. First, there is a need to revamp small holder agriculture. Because of stagnating growth in agriculture after the mid-1990s, there has been employment decline, income decline and hence a fall in aggregate demand by the rural poor. The most important intervention that is needed is greater investment in irrigation, power, and roads in poorer regions. It is essential to realise the potential for production surpluses in central and eastern India, where the concentration of poverty is increasing.

Second, watershed development programmes must be undertaken on a large scale in central India, where most tribes live. In a successful watershed programme, the poor benefit in three ways. First, as the net sown area and crop intensity increases, more opportunities for wage employment are created. Second, increased water availability and reduced soil erosion increases production on small and marginal farmers’ lands. And last, the higher productivity of common property resources improves access of the poor to more fodder, fuelwood, water and forest produce.

Third, the government must initiate steps to plant fruit trees on degraded forests and homestead lands that belong to or have been allotted to the poor. This will not only make the poor people’s diet more nutritious, but will also diversify their livelihoods and reduce seasonal vulnerability.

The decline in food consumption by the poor has to be understood as a distress phenomenon, as despite the marginal increase in their incomes over time, the poor have been forced to divert more money to meet other pressing demands, which were earlier not considered important, like education, transport and health.

N C Saxena

Fourth, more job opportunities must be created by undertaking public works in districts with low agricultural productivity. Fifth, provide separate ration cards as well as job cards under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act to all ‘single’ women, regardless of whether they live alone, with dependents, or in their natal or husband’s home. This should also cover all aged, infirm and disabled people, who may or may not live with ‘ablebodied’ caregivers.

Sixth, there is a need to improve the skills of the poor for market-oriented jobs, so that they are absorbed in the sunrise industries, such as hospitality, security, health and construction.

Seventh, there must be a scheme to cover the urban poor, as a large number of homeless and poor living in unauthorised colonies in urban areas have been denied ration cards, and are thus not able to avail of PDS,

Eighth, the state must prepare a comprehensive list every two years of all destitutes needing free or subsidised cooked food. Mid-day meals must be made available to such people, as is already being done in Tamil Nadu. Community kitchens must be set up across cities and urban settlements to provide inexpensive, subsidised nutritious cooked meals to urban homeless and migrant labour.

Ninth, the government must grant priority to inclusion of millets in the food security policy to address the nutritional insecurity of the most vulnerable sections. Millets bring with them six critical securities: food, fodder, health, nutrition, water and ecological. These grains, cultivated in the least-endowed dryland areas of India, must be seen from the perspective of their potential to contribute to our fight against hunger, poverty and the climate crisis. They are the ‘new age answer’ to the ‘new age crises’ such as climate change. Therefore the new approach should include millets not only in production and procurement policies, but also in the PDS and other food distribution programmes such as ICDS, Food for Work and School Meals.

Tenth, there is a need to restructure the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) programme. Despite a three-fold increase in its budget in the last five years and the contention of the Ministry of Women and Child Development that there are 1.5 early child-care centres per village now, ICDS is reaching only 12.5 per cent children in the age group 6 months to 6 years. Also, the programme targets children mostly after the age of three when malnutrition has already set in. It does not focus on the critical age group of children under three years, the age window during which health and nutrition interventions can have the most effect.

The focus of ICDS should be health and nutrition education, encouraging women to breastfeed exclusively for six months and after that add semisolid family food four to six times a day in appropriate quantities for the infant, which alone can improve nutrition levels.

The trend of satisfactory economic growth, exports of rice and falling per capita production has continued even after 2004, leading to high open market prices and consequently increased food insecurity.

Lastly, India requires a significant increase of targeted investments in nutrition programmes, clinics, disease control, water and sanitation, rural electrification, rural roads and other basic investments, especially in the rural parts, where the current budgetary allocations are inadequate. Higher public investments in these areas need to be accompanied by systemic reforms that will overhaul the present system of service delivery, including issues of control and oversight. Outlays should not be considered as an end in itself. Delivery of food based schemes requires increasing financial resources, but more importantly the quality of public expenditures in these areas. This in turn requires improving the governance, productivity and accountability of government machinery.


There are many reasons for food insecurity, including poverty, unemployment, lack of health care, and gender inequality, among others. The right to food cuts across programmes of many sectors-including health, nutrition, agriculture, livelihoods, gender, and water. This means that in any context, at least half a dozen ministries will be operating programmes that have some impact on availability, access and absorption of food. Converging all of these under a central leadership is critical. Brazil converged as many as 31 programmes combating hunger, which are now overseen by the Ministry of Food Security. It is imperative that we bring together all our programmes on a single converged platform.

In the ultimate analysis, the constraints to food insecurity and hunger are rooted in bad policies, faulty design, lack of appropriate monitoring and evaluation, poor governance and lack of political will. Action is needed on all the fronts. Economic growth alone is insufficient to bring about significant reductions in the prevalence of malnourishment among children, or increase in food intake of the poor. Without a major shake up in policy and an improvement in the effectiveness of its implementation, the attainment of the goal of ‘food security for all’ by India looks unlikely.

N C Saxena

Dr.Naresh Chandra Saxena was the topper of his batch in the Indian Administrative Service, which he joined in 1964. He retired as Secretary, Planning Commission, Govt of India (GOI). He also worked as Secretary, Ministry of Rural Development, and Secretary Minorities Commission (GOI). He was a Member of the National Advisory Council from 2004 to 2008 and 2010 to 2014. During 1993-96 he was Director, Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration, Mussoorie, which trains senior civil servants. On behalf of the Supreme Court of India, Dr Saxena monitors hunger based programmes in India.
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