To the hungry, god is bread

M. S. SWAMINATHAN, Opinion: Lead, October 1, 2011

The National Food Security Bill, 2011, designed to make access to food a legal right, is the last chance to convert Gandhiji’s vision of a hunger-free India into reality.

What Mahatma Gandhi said of the role of food in a human being’s life in a 1946 speech at Noakhali, now in Bangladesh, remains the most powerful expression of the importance of making access to food a basic human right. Gandhiji also wanted that the pathway to ending hunger should involve opportunities for everyone to earn their daily bread, since the process of ending hunger should not lead to the erosion of human dignity.

Unfortunately, this message was forgotten after Independence, and government departments started referring to those being provided any form of social support as “beneficiaries.” The “beneficiary” tag is also being applied to the women and men who toil for eight hours under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS). Sixty-five years after Gandhiji’s Noakhali speech, India is still home to the largest number of under nourished and malnourished children, women and men in any country. The number of people going to bed partially hungry now is more than the entire population of India in 1947.

Recent articles by P. Sainath in The Hindu (September 26 and 27, 2011) brought out vividly the extent of deprivation and destitution prevalent in rural India. Rural deprivation and agrarian distress lead to the growth of urban slums and suffering. The Planning Commission’s submission before the Supreme Court on the amount of money needed per day per person in urban and rural India to meet needs in the areas of nutrition, education and health care (Rs.35 a day in urban India, and Rs.26 in rural India) showed how divorced this important body has become from real life.

At least there is a ray of hope in the draft National Food Security Bill, 2011 put on the website of the Ministry of Consumer Affairs, Food and Public Distribution, now under the charge of the humanist, Professor K.V. Thomas. This draft will go through a Select Committee of Parliament. I hope that the final version — designed to make access to food a legal right rather than remaining a token of political patronage — will help erase India’s image as the land of the malnourished.

The stated aim of the draft Bill is “to provide for food and nutritional security, in human life cycle approach, by ensuring access to adequate quantity of quality food at affordable prices, for people to live a life with dignity.” To realise this, we must ensure that every child, woman and man has physical, economic and social (in gender terms) access to a balanced diet (that is, the needed calories and protein), micronutrients (iron, iodine, zinc, Vitamin A, Vitamin B12 and so on), as well as clean drinking water, sanitation and primary health care.

A life cycle approach to food security will imply attention to the nutritional needs of a human being from conception to cremation. The most vulnerable but neglected segment is the first 1,000 days in a child’s life — the period from conception to the age of two, when much of the brain development takes place.

Obviously the child during this period can be reached only through the mother. Therefore, the life cycle approach to food security starts with pregnant women. The high incidence of children with low birth weight (less than 2.5 kg) is the result of maternal and foetal undernutrition. Such children suffer from handicaps in later life, including impaired cognitive ability. Denying a child even at birth an opportunity for the full expression of its innate genetic potential for physical and mental development is the cruellest form of inequity. The Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) will have to be redesigned and implemented in two time frames (0-2 and three to six years).

From the legal rights viewpoint, the draft Bill addresses the issue of economic access to food. The other two components of food security — namely, availability of food, which is a function of production, and absorption of food in the body, which is a function of clean drinking water, sanitation and primary health care — cannot easily be made legal entitlements. To make food-for-all a legal right, it is necessary to adopt a Universal Public Distribution System (PDS) with common but differentiated entitlements with reference to the cost and quantity of foodgrain. The draft Bill adopts the nomenclature suggested by the National Advisory Council (NAC) and divides the population into priority, that is, those who need adequate social support, and general, that is, those who can afford to pay a higher price for foodgrain. The initial prices proposed are Rs.3, 2 and 1 a kg for rice, wheat and millet respectively for the priority group, and 50 per cent of the Minimum Support Price (MSP) for the general group. In a Universal PDS system, both self-selection and well-defined exclusion criteria operated by elected local bodies will help eliminate those who are not in need of social support for their daily bread. In fact, it is the general group that should support financially the provision of highly subsidised food to the economically and socially underprivileged sections. In the case of the well-to-do, the aim of Universal PDS should be to ensure physical access to food.

The widening of the food basket by including a range of nutri-cereals (normally referred to as “coarse cereals”), along with wheat and rice is an important feature of the Food Security Bill. Nutri-cereals such as bajra, ragi, jowar, maize, constitute “health foods,” and their inclusion in the PDS, along with wheat and rice, will encourage their production by farmers. Nutri-cereals are usually cultivated in rainfed areas and are more climate-resilient. Hence, in an era of climate change, they will play an increasingly important role in human nutrition security. During 2010-11, India’s farmers produced 86 million tonnes of wheat, 95 million tonnes of rice and 42 million tonnes of nutri-cereals. The production of nutri-cereals, grown in dry farming areas, will go up if procurement and consumption go up. Thus, the addition of these foodgrain will help strengthen foodgrain availability and nutrition security.

The other components of the Bill that do not involve legal commitments, refer to agricultural production, procurement and safe storage of grain, clean drinking water and sanitation. The temptation to provide cash instead of grain to the ‘priority’ group should be avoided. Currency notes can be printed, but grain can be produced only by farmers, who constitute nearly two-thirds of India’s population. Giving cash will reduce interest in procurement and safe storage. This in turn will affect production. The “crop holiday” declared by farmers in East Godavari district of Andhra Pradesh is a wake-up call.

A committee set up by the Government of Andhra Pradesh and chaired by Dr. Mohan Kanda, pointed to the following factors behind the decision of a large number of farm families not to grow rice during this kharif season. First, the MSP on offer does not cover the cost of production; the MSP fixed by the Government of India was Rs.1,080 a quintal for common varieties, while the cost of production was Rs.1,270. Second, procurement is sluggish since it is largely being done by rice mills. Third, the late release of canal water, non-availability of credit and other essential inputs, and delayed settlement of crop insurance dues, are affecting the morale and level of interest of farm families. Thus, farmers are facing serious economic, ecological and farm management difficulties. The government should consider adopting as a general policy the formula suggested by the National Commission on Farmers (NCF), that MSP should be C2 plus 50 per cent (total cost of production plus 50 per cent).

Finally, the Bill provides for the creation of Food Security Commissions at the State and Central levels. The two essential ingredients of implementing the legal right to food are political will and farmers’ skill. Hence, State-level Food Security Commissions should be chaired by farmers with an outstanding record of successful farming. They will then help ensure adequate food supply to feed the PDS. At the national level, the composition proposed by the NCF in its final report submitted in October 2006 will help ensure adequate political will and oversight. The suggestion was to set up a National Food Security and Sovereignty Board at the Central level, with the Prime Minister chairing it. The other members could be the Union Ministers concerned, political party leaders in Parliament, a few Chief Ministers of grain-surplus and grain-deficit States, and leading farmers and experts.

Unless we develop and introduce methods to ensure effective political and farmer participation in implementing the Food Security Bill, we will not be able to overcome the problems faced by the PDS in some places arising from corruption in the distribution of entitlements.

The National Food Security Bill, 2011, provides the last chance to launch a frontal attack on poverty-induced hunger and to realise Mahatma Gandhi’s desire that the God of Bread should be present in every home and hut in India. We should not miss this opportunity.

(M.S. Swaminathan is Chairman, MSSRF, and Member of Parliament, Rajya Sabha.)


When it has become the Mantra of Globalisation Privatisation Liberisation then to speak for the state trading both in retail and whole sale of food (which has been put aside deliberately) will sound like mad. We have plenty of food but the prices are high and why there is no price control? The wheat was allowed to rot inspite of Supreme Court’s advice to distribute them among the poor. What kind of Demand and supply theory is operating at the cost of people’s livelihood. How can the Govt allow to export of food grains , vegetables for few dollar keeping the people of our country hungry! The prices are rising every day and the purchasing power of the people reducing day by day. We are under the mercy of the market forces. There is local proverb in Gujarat meaning when the ruler becomes business man then the people become beggar. The first step is to control the price hike of all essential commodities and the state trading both in retail and whole sale be introduced with out delay
from:  Dwarika Nath Rath
Posted on: Oct 1, 2011 at 00:53 IST 

A very nice article but makes an implicit assumption that our PDS are run by people who really care about people, poor in particular. Most of the grains available for PDS is sold through black market. I think, the system adopted in France is much better. In France, the people with lesser income are provided assistance for their accommodation and supporting their family. However, these assistance is directly paid to their respective bank accounts and/or their landlord. The department gets the income details from the Income tax department. The only time the people have to visit this department is when there is a change in family status or when he registering for the first time. This way, the people can opt for quality food from the shop of their choice. This is also economical to the GoI, since it can manage a lesser workforce.
from:  Sivasathivel Kandasamy
Posted on: Oct 1, 2011 at 02:28 IST 

Not to say a brillant article by the proponent of Green revolution in India.what i would like to add over here is the structural aspect of the problem of Food security.The first and foremost is the defective preparation of BPL list.In many States, entire communities have been left out, and almost everywhere, there are enormous exclusion errors.For targeted PDS it is very important to have right group with you even if you are going for near universal PDS.Second is the diversion of land for nonagricultural purposes and inadequate irrigation facility to the avialable cultivable land which affects the overall productivity of the land severely.Thirdly the average size of land holdings is very small and is subject to fragmentation due to land ceiling acts. Such small holdings are often over-manned, resulting in disguised unemployment and low productivity of labour.The easily visible problem is the lack of Modern agrcltrl practices and what we need is a cmprhsve agr policy & FSA
from:  Amandeep
Posted on: Oct 1, 2011 at 03:32 IST 

This is a very insightful analysis of the food security bill. However, there are a couple of issues missing. First, while equitable access to food is a desirable goal, it’s also important to define what is food (versus fuel) and how much of it should be made accessible to whom. The other issue I think quite complex and possibly should be another topic of an essay is, what is the opportunity cost of food versus other perceived needs. We have seen how people prefer cell phones and TVs to access to clean toilets and safe drinking water. There needs to be a nationwide awareness campaign about what is really necessary in life including food and nutrition, and their appropriate prices. There is hope about the National Food Security Bill 2011 as MS Swaminathan writes here.
from:  Arin Basu
Posted on: Oct 1, 2011 at 04:24 IST 

Time and again, it has been shown that any “hand-out culture” distorts production, distribution, consumption and national economics, divides society, lowers self-belief, harms self-reliance, diminishes self-respect, etc. While there may be an emergency need to safeguard citizens from suffering and even death from malnutrition and starvation, the planning aims ought to remain focused on the basics – on the demand side: enabling citizens to be able to engage in economic activities to “earn a decent wage and generally to fend for themselves”, and on the supply side: to increase production, streamline efficient distribution, eradicate black-marketing/adulteration, etc. On educational front the State must set nutritional standards of healthy diets, restrict commercial exploitation by promoting fads/junk foods. Long-term, paternalistic, charity leads to dependence, while laissez faire philosophy in economics smacks of indifference, even callousness. Public participation & commitment a must.
from:  Mahapatra
Posted on: Oct 1, 2011 at 05:44 IST 

Very important and relevant comments. But will the present leadership dreaming of making India a superpower worry about this? No where in the world will you see the rich and the ‘well offs’ so callous. After all this is the only country where Laxmi is worshipped!
from:  P M Vishwanath
Posted on: Oct 1, 2011 at 05:51 IST 

Swaminathan’s article is a beautiful piece which is actually a guide for action.Bread must but with dignity,i hope politician and bureaucracy are listening. They have not forgotten Gandhi but trying to remember him only as a statue instead of speaking Mahatma.
from:  Sukhinder Singh Dhaliwal
Posted on: Oct 1, 2011 at 08:33 IST 

This is the last trial of our government to secure the very basic pillar of food security. Earlier the planning commission’s report has ridiculed the concept of welfare if the food security bill get passed it should be make ensure to distribute the god of bread under the fairer PDS SYSTEM.we are very optimistic towards the bill.
from:  Prinki rawat
Posted on: Oct 1, 2011 at 08:38 IST 

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