According
to the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), food security is achieved when
all people at all times have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe
and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs and food preferences for an
active and healthy life. Food security has three important and closely related
components — availability of food, access to food and absorption of food. Food
security is, thus, a multi-dimensional concept and extends beyond the
production, availability and demand for food.

The
Green Revolution initiated in the late 1960s was a watershed that transformed
the food security situation in India. It almost quintupled foodgrain production
over the next three or four decades and consequently reduced by over 50 per
cent both the levels of food insecurity and poverty. This was achieved in spite
of the increase in population during the period, which almost doubled.
Foodgrain production in the country registered a steady increase from a mere 50
million tonnes in 1950-51 to around 250 million tonnes now. At present, the
government has a buffer stock of more than 50 million tonnes of foodgrain, much
more than the stipulated 17 million tonnes.

Despite
the achievement of macro-level food security and the discernible improvement in
per capita consumption, the country is still home to a fifth of the world’s
undernourished population. This situation has been ascribed to high and
increasing population pressure with nearly 16 million people being added
annually to the burgeoning population exceeding 1.3 billion. Hunger and
malnutrition are rooted in serious problems related to the distribution and
economic access to food, which can adversely affect household and
individual-level food insecurity.

Despite
the large increase in production, access to food continues to be a serious
issue especially in the context of extraordinarily high inflation rates in food
commodities in recent years and limited access in large parts of the country to
high-quality diet. The weak link between income growth and nutritional outcomes
implies that food security will require special attention of policy-makers and
cannot be presumed to follow as a consequence of growth. This is quite apart
from a parallel discourse that argues for a rights-based approach to food
security so that the primary responsibility rests with the state.

The
concept of food security includes peoples’ access to basic food products, both
physically and economically. The problem of access to basic foods is
particularly acute for the vulnerable sections of society and in the deficient
and inaccessible regions of the country. It implies a situation where everyone
has access, at all times, to the food needed for an active and healthy life.

An
approach to national food security, which relies largely on domestic production
of food needed for consumption as well as for building buffer stocks, can be
described as a strategy of self-sufficiency. However, a strategy for food
security should not preclude external trade in food. Trade may take place in
the margins and according to need — exports in surplus situations and imports
in deficit periods. Even though India has now reached a stage where it is no
longer exposed to famines, there still exist pockets within the country where
people have to face acute starvation.

Twelve
famines and four major scarcities occurred during the rule of the East India
Company (1765-1858). The frequency of famines increased after the transfer of
power to the Crown. In 1943, there was famine in Bengal and it was a tragedy of
unprecedented magnitude. The death toll due to starvation and disease was
around 1.5 million. Periods of famines have also been the periods of high food
prices and agricultural unemployment.

Famines
were caused during British rule due to a variety of factors — large-scale
unemployment following the import of machine-made goods from Britain,
over-exploitation of farmers, and restricted access to available food. India
suffered two very severe droughts in 1965 and 1966, but achieved
self-sufficiency in foodgrain by 1976 through the implementation of the
seed-water-fertiliser-led Green Revolution. The country is no longer exposed to
real famines. However, lack of purchasing power prevails in some parts of the
country.

Against
this background, the role of the government lies in promoting domestic
production to meet the demands of a growing population, providing minimum
support prices for procurement and storage of foodgrain, operating a Public
Distribution System, and maintaining buffer stocks to counteract any increase
in prices of foodgrain during periods of shortage.

The
food security system and pricing policy consist of three instruments — procurement/minimum
support prices, buffer stocks and the public distribution system (PDS). The
minimum support prices and procurement price policy for agricultural
commodities seek to ensure remunerative prices to growers for their produce
with a view to encouraging higher investment and production, and at the same
time, safeguarding the interest of consumers by making available supplies at
reasonable prices.

Access
to food can be increased through employment in the context of growth in labour
intensive sectors and/or through social protection programmes.  There are government programmes such as TPDS
(Targeted PDS) including AAY, nutrition programmes like mid-day meals and ICDS
(Integrated Child Development Scheme) to improve food and nutrition security.
NREGS (National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme) and self-employment
programmes can also increase access to food and nutrition. Social protection
programmes have helped improve incomes and provide protection to the poor from
shocks. However, there are a number of gaps in social protection programmes, as
often as not marked by inefficiency.

Although
the ongoing TPDS is supposed to provide subsidised foodgrain to the BPL
population, the legislative measure may lead to better accountability by making
the PDS system more responsive in reaching out to the targeted population.
Against this background, the National Food Security Act (NFSA) provides a
statutory basis for a framework which assures food security for all.

This
law aims to provide subsidised foodgrain to approximately two-third of India’s
1.3 billion people. Every family below the poverty line in rural as well as
urban areas will be entitled by law, to 25 kilograms of rice or wheat per month
at Rs 3 per kilogram. Some states like Tamil Nadu and West Bengal have gone
beyond NFSA to extend the food security cover to a much larger population than
proposed in the Act. It is felt that the statutory guarantee of food with fixed
entitlements to the poor would be an important step towards ensuring food and
nutritional security.

The
general view is that at the very least the Right to Food Act has to build on
four major types of interventions — nutrition schemes for children, the PDS,
social assistance for vulnerable groups (e.g., pensioners, Antyodaya Anna
Yojana) and other interventions.

The
NFSA provides that every State Government shall constitute a State Food
Commission for monitoring and review of implementation. The NFSA envisions a
comprehensive legislative framework for protecting an individual’s right to
food, furthering the vision expressed in the Constitution. It is conceived as a
system of interventions following a life-cycle approach; at every stage of an
individual’s life, a safety net will be provided by the state to ensure food
security.

The
fundamental criticism of the NFSA is the predominant presence of the State in
the grain markets across the country and the costs involved in procurement,
storage and distribution as part of what is widely seen as a flawed mechanism.
The PDS, a strategy for food security based largely on self-sufficiency in food
production, has the advantage of promoting both productivity and purchasing
power among small peasants and agricultural labourers. India definitely has
come a long way from a food deficient to a food sufficient country ensuring
food security forl its population.

–By
Saumitra Mohan
 

The
writer is an IAS officer posted as District Magistrate, Burdwan, in West
Bengal. The views expressed are personal.