The food security bill being debated in Delhi is a big step forward, but we need a lot more than a law to combat hunger
In India over the past 15 years, the debate about food, under a rights-based perspective, has become increasingly complex. Concerns about famine, emergency relief and technology-driven green revolutions have given way to discussions on the state’s failure to deliver public distribution programmes, the discrimination these programmes perpetuate, legal entitlements to land, climate change, price volatility and the role of NGOs. In other words, the debate has shifted from starvation and subsistence to dignity and justice.
In 2001, we saw the scandal of the country bursting at the seams with60m tonnes of stored food grains as starvation, death and migration afflicted six states. The People’s Union for Civil Liberties sued the government, arguing that it must open its grain reserves to feed the hungry. The writ demanded the government provide jobs to people in drought-affected villages and support those who could not work.
Eventually, India’s supreme court agreed the state was indeed responsible for providing nutrition and public health. The most persuasive argument to the court is that the right to food is directly related to the constitutional guarantee of a right to life. When the government said it simply could not afford to provide every citizen with the right to food, the court said lack of money was no excuse.
The national food security bill is an outcome of the 11-plus years of litigation, street protests and media and public scrutiny. In response to the pressure, the government, when it came to power in 2009, madefood security one of its electoral promises. The draft bill was finally tabled in parliament in December 2011. Despite omissions in the draft bill, it still marks a great step forward – and food rights champions hope that when it gets passed into legislation it will be far more progressive and inclusive than it is now.
To discuss the background to this legislation, prominent authors and commentators joined with Oxfam India and the UK’s Institute of Development Studies to put together the bulletin Standing on the threshold: food justice in India.
From the father of India’s green revolution, MS Swaminathan, to public intellectual CP Chandrasekhar and supreme court commissioners on the right to food, NC Saxema and Harsh Mander, the bulletin’s contributors agree approval of the bill is an important step forward for India. However, a law on its own can do little. India is still in the bottom 10 for child malnutrition, infant mortality and protecting land rights – a gloomy picture produced by institutional failures, gaps in legal frameworks, a lack of political will and the weak monitoring mechanisms of existing public distribution programmes.
If India’s second green revolution is to contribute to an accelerated reduction of poverty, hunger and malnutrition, it has to be a state-led project. Far from being old-fashioned, the state’s pricing policies, legal entitlement system, public distribution and natural-resource management programmes are key to reaching the poorest of the poor. The food, nutrition and agriculture programmes are failing to tackle deep-seated discriminatory practices. Stronger, transparent monitoring by accountable state agencies is a must.
If food security is about having certainty about the future, the common goal must also be growth in agriculture and food security that gives the same rights on the land to men and women farmers. A complete halt on any new land acquisition is required until a way of calculating and compensating social, economic and environmental costs is in place, particularly with regard to tribal communities, for whom the right to the land is still particularly uncertain. The media also have a crucial role to play: the most common references to food by them still revolves around restaurant reviews, food festivals, and books on cooking and dieting.
Finally, India has to realise that any global climate policy must have solid domestic foundations, reflecting the concerns of poor people, including farmers and fishermen – in India as elsewhere.
The future will belong to nations with grains and not guns. We have enough grains for all – we need to open and expand our thinking on what can be done, and how to build a future where everyone on the planet always has enough to eat.
• Biraj Swain is Oxfam India‘s campaigns manager, and co-editor of Standing on the threshold, to be launched at New Delhi’s Constitution club on 17 July
ARUNA ROY & NEHA SAIGAL
The 28th of May, marked as “World Hunger Day,” has come and gone but for Pannu Bai Bhil, every day is hunger day. How does someone dealing with chronic hunger view a day marking her plight? Let those of us who overeat at least take stock of a hungry India pitted against bumper crops, number crunching, technologies for profit, markets, and growth rates. The solution for hunger lies in proper distribution of grain, and not in bringing technology as the Prime Minster avers when talking of GM crops. If this government cannot prevent the huge stocks from rotting by distributing food grain adequately and equitably, other questions remain mere rhetoric.
Whenever issues of deprivation, hunger and social security are raised, the government deliberately talks of the declining Sensex, the rupee exchange, growth rates, and balanced budgets. Most innocent readers and viewers of news blame the demands of the marginalised for pulling down a rising India. Nationalist India will have to make a choice. Can we shift from fighting the ‘foreign hand’ to fight the biggest enemy within — the hunger of millions? India has not addressed the unpardonable sin of letting bumper crops and huge dumps of grain rot, when millions of Indians battle with endemic hunger and lack of access to food.
Since it is a global event, a quick overview of international standards would be useful. The World Food Summit (1996) defined food security as “access to sufficient, safe, nutritious food to maintain a healthy and active life.” The Global Hunger Index released by the International Food Policy Research Institute ranks India 66th among 88 vulnerable countries. Ironically farmers are amongst the millions who go hungry. A principal reason is that the economy has neglected agriculture, continuously discriminated against and exploited to subsidise the manufacturing and service sectors.
How to lie with statistics : The first method to downplay the issue is to crunch numbers, and reduce the statistics of hungry people. There are many contradictory reports and studies commissioned by the government. Conclusive figures vary. For example, according to the Planning Commission’s contentious Tendulkar Committee Report, calorie consumption is calculated at 1776 calories per person per day for urban areas, 1999 for rural areas. This is much below the ICMR (Indian Council of Medical Research) norms for the average person in India which is 2400 calories in rural areas and 2100 calories in urban areas. Having already restricted the supply of subsidised food grains to BPL families, the government brought down the BPL figures from 37.2 per cent in 2004-05 to 29.8 per cent in 2009-10. In one stroke, the government absolved itself of the responsibility of providing affordable food grain to those who, by medical standards, needed them. Yet while releasing the ‘Hungama’ report (2012), the Prime Minister was shocked to find 42 per cent of children malnourished, calling it a “national shame”.
The technology fix : “The country cannot feed its hungry millions, unless there is high tech Corporate agriculture!” According to the figures of the Ministry of Agriculture, in the last three years of 2009-10, 2010-2011 and 2011-12 food grain production broke records. The country produced approximately 240 million tonnes of cereals and 17 million tonnes of pulses last year. If this is procured and distributed efficiently, it should be enough to provide the stipulated calories for the entire population of the country. Instead, there is poor procurement, and potential wastage of millions of tonnes of food grain that will rot in railway yards, mandies , FCI godowns across the country. The population that will and has benefited most from this stark inability to deal with distribution are rats! Exporting food now, far from being a solution, will only aggravate hunger further.
Technology or political will : Facts and figures proclaim surplus despite accusations that the agriculture sector pulls down growth. But, the government has been making hunger and low production the reason to push a series of techno-fix solutions. It is part of a mindset that sees the solution in Northern style Agro-Business Corporations. The balance sheet of a technological solution can now be better measured in the cradles of the Green revolution — Punjab and Haryana — where the costs to the land and water table, and dependent relationship on the financiers and agro companies were never factored in. This model, propagated across the country, spelt rapid depletion of the natural capital for farming — soil, water and biodiversity. It also resulted in indebted farmers. It is inexplicable that a set of market economy policymakers, with a commitment to cost benefit analysis, should ignore depletion of basic capital — land that produces, and the (in)security of farmers in the market. There is also the wider national impact of these agrochemicals on health.
The latest addition to this treadmill of technologies being sold to farmers is Genetically Modified (GM) crops. It represents a paradigm shift in agriculture, with the potential to affect the consumers (food safety) and farmers (livelihood) security.
GM crops are controversial all over the world. Questions have been repeatedly raised against this technology being introduced in food and farming. When Bt Brinjal was introduced, it was the first GM food crop proposed for commercial cultivation. There was public opposition from all sections of society, including the fact that the bio-safety assessment on Bt Brinjal was not satisfactory. Jairam Ramesh, then Union Minister for Environment and Forests, concluded a series of public consultations on this contested policy, with a decision to enforce an indefinite moratorium on the proposal.
In fact, the assessment of Bt cotton, the only commercially approved GM crop in the country, should ring alarm bells for policymakers obsessed with the idea of increased food production through GM technology. While the area under Bt cotton cultivation has certainly gone up over the last decade, data analysis shows productivity has not significantly increased, nor has pesticide use markedly decreased. In fact, cotton productivity has been on the decline in the last five years — a period when Bt cotton covered the majority of the cotton cultivated area in the country. Far from being a technological solution to rural poverty, Bt cotton has only increased the distress of those dependent on farming, and acutely so in the semi-arid cotton belt. Costs have increased due to the appearance of new pests and others developing Bt resistance, higher water and fertilizer requirements, and no major benefit in the output. The main beneficiaries of this transfer to Bt Cotton seem to be multinational seed companies like Monsanto which have profited through patents and royalty.
Attempts to flood agriculture with GM crops — around 71 at different stages of development in the pipeline — in fact pose a threat to long-term food security. The government seems unconcerned that this technology will further shift the control of agriculture to seed companies and corporate intermediaries. There is a growing body of science that points to the risk that GM food might pose to human health and environment. What insures us against the potential disaster to life and environment when side-effects emerge a few decades later?
While hasty techno-fixes to deal with the crisis in the farming community are afoot, malnutrition and genuine problems in the agricultural sector in the country fail to be seriously addressed. Farmers committing suicide are linked to the commercial pressures of tech dependent agriculture, along with the controls of companies, the market, and credit agencies. Increasing production is not the only solution to hunger in an unequal society. The debates around the National Food Security Bill reveal the lack of political intent to use food stocks to help remove malnutrition and address inequity. While talking of food security (a much larger right than just PDS), policymakers are reluctant to grant universal entitlements of even food grain to eradicate hunger.
India is, and will be, an agricultural economy. Communities dependent on farming have tremendously difficult jobs and very low incomes. In shifting to intensive mono cropping during the Green Revolution, farmers stopped cultivating diverse and subsistence crops, undermining their own basic food security. We need to ensure that people in agriculture lead economically secure lives. A rationally calculated Minimum Support Price is non-negotiable. Agricultural workers and farmers must have the purchasing power, for their own food security needs.
If we take “hunger day” seriously, every Indian who feeds more than twice a day, wasting food, and critiquing food entitlements, should feel contrite and join the campaign for a universal entitlement through the PDS. We should take a serious look at the politics of food, and not be taken in by potentially dangerous technological solutions like GM foods. The Indian government must move from platitudes to action. Undistributed grains must be moved immediately to people through the PDS and increased universal allocations under the proposed Right to Food Bill. Can we afford to wait for Parliament debates in the monsoon session as rains soak and rot open food stocks, and farmers struggle to find the money for inputs to sow their next crop?
(Aruna Roy is a social activist. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com Neha Saigal is Sustainable Agriculture Campaigner, Greenpeace India)
Policymakers talk of food security
but are reluctant to give universal
entitlements to eradicate hunger
Biraj Patnaik, a right to food activist and principal adviser, Office of Commissioners to the Supreme Court in the right to food case, tells Mukesh Ranjan that the government should avoid being distracted by the concept of the poverty line
* How do you view the Planning Commission’s new definition of the poverty line, namely, daily per capita expenditure of Rs 28 in urban areas and Rs 22 in rural areas?
I have no problem with the Planning Commission or the government coming up with a definition of the poverty line. Unfortunately, the problem that we are facing now is that the poverty line is used (since 1996) as a cut-off in the estimation of the poor who will become eligible for government welfare schemes, and also for inter-state allocation of Central resources.
These new figures are not new but merely an adjustment of the “Tendulkar Committee line” for 2009-10 using the National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO) data. The Planning Commission has not gone ahead and further reduced the existing per capita per day consumption on the basis of a new formula, as is being made out in some sections of the media.
Of course, having a “minimalist starvation line”, like the one that the Planning Commission has come up with for targeting benefits to people, is outright perverse; hence the public outrage that was also reflected in Parliament. Unfortunately, the Planning Commission does not seem to have learnt a lesson from the public outrage in October last year when Rs 32 per day was suggested.
It is the arrogance of a group of economists who think that public opinion, and indeed that of the courts, should be treated with contempt.
* Contradictory statements have come from the deputy chairman of the plan body and the minister of state for planning on whether the new poverty estimate should be linked to welfare entitlements for the poor.
I am not very optimistic that this government will delink entitlements from the proposed poverty line, which people are mocking. This is born out of experience. Therefore, public pressure is necessary. When the National Food Security Bill was placed before Parliament, to our utter disappointment the same Tendulkar caps (plus 10 per cent) found their way into the bill. It was an outright betrayal that, sadly, continued the faulty thinking that the National Advisory Council had gifted this legislation with. This reflects the true intent of the present regime.
On policy flip-flop, and contradictory statements emanating from Yojana Bhavan, I don’t think we should attribute to malice what can so easily be attributable to sheer ineptitude. If truth be told, it is not that the Planning Commission is a body of complete idiots, as some members within it are striving to prove. Yet, they are collectively doing a great disservice to the institution. Never before has Yojana Bhavan been an object of such public derision. That saddens me immensely.
Today, the Planning Commission is at war with itself. Institutional incoherence on critical issues is merely a symptom of a larger malaise. There is an urgent need for the plan panel to collectively reflect on its mistakes, learn lessons from them, fix accountability and try to re-establish its credibility in the public eye. It is way too important an institution to be whittled down. It is our duty as citizens to reclaim it for the poor from the corporate interests it is now perceived to represent.
* How do you see the government’s decision — announced recently following the ruckus on the new poverty line —to constitute a new expert group to look into the methodology of determining the number of poor people in the country?
If we move towards a system of universal state provisioning of basic rights (we have already done this for education and rural employment, and the same is under active consideration for universal healthcare), it should not matter what committee is set up and what the new estimates are going to be. But since ambiguity persists, this move to set up yet another committee can be easily interpreted as a cynical, ad hoc measure to bail the government out from the tight spot it finds itself in, in Parliament.
* Do you think the government succumbed to popular pressure to junk the poverty estimates’ announcement by the deputy chairman of the Planning Commission, Montek Singh Ahluwalia, which he had made just two days before the new expert group was constituted?
I suspect the last word has still not been said on this. I am not very hopeful at this stage that without sustained struggle politically, we can rid this country of the tyranny of the poverty line. Having said that, I am optimistic that sustained public opinion and efforts of the Supreme Court offer a very realistic chance of delinking entitlements from the official poverty line.
* Are you satisfied with the data on poverty collected by the NSSO ? Even Dr Ahluwalia has acknowledged discrepancies in the consumer expenditure data shown in the NSSO’s National Accounts.
I don’t think that the deputy chairperson has questioned the quality of the NSSO data.
It is a very robust set of data and I don’t see an alternative to it emerging in the near future. What he has indeed highlighted is the difference in some expenditure heads between the NSSO data and the National Accounts. This has been known for quite some time now. It is for economists and planners who work closely with these data sets to resolve this over time. I think by questioning the NSSO data we are doing the statistical machinery of India a great disservice. If we do not have faith in any institution, any data, any official body, then the roadmap ahead will only lead us to a fascist psyche, and that is something we must be cautious of.
* What, according to you, would be the right approach or methodology to determine the number of poor people in the country?
In my view, whatever approach we follow, we should not use it for targeting the poor. If the government, for whatever reason, cannot move towards a regime of universal coverage for all rights (legal and extra legal entitlements), it should use an exclusion approach to identification. Rather than spending its energies on identifying the poor, it would be way easier for it to identify the “rich” and exclude them from the entitlements meant for the poor. This approach was suggested by Kirit Parikh, a former member of the Planning Commission, in the context of the Food Security Bill.
Subsequently, Jean Dreze and other eminent economists have also endorsed it. I think that would be a step forward in the right direction.
Average per capita net availability of foodgrain declined in every five-year period of the ‘reforms’ without exception. In the 20 years preceding the reforms — 1972-1991 — it rose every five-year period without exception.
The country’s total foodgrain production is expected to touch a record 250 million tons this year (2011-12).
Union Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar
PTI, February 17, 2012
Record foodgrain output of 235.88 million tons in 2010-11.
PTI, April 6, 2011
India’s foodgrain production hit a fresh record at 233.87 million tonnes in 2008-09.
Sharad Pawar, Lok Sabha,
July 20, 2009
The Minister (Mr. Pawar) said food grain production in 2007-08 had reached a record 227.32 million tonnes and record production has been achieved in a number of crops.
April 23, 2008
“During 2006-07, the agriculture sector has posted new landmarks. The record production of 216 million tonnes of food grains…”
November 13, 2007
Economic Editors conference
Union Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar doesn’t just deal in foodgrain production, he deals in records. Landmarks he’s fond of citing as foodgrain production rises every year. (Barring blips like those in 2009-10, of course). Sticking to absolute numbers helps him maintain a modest silence on another record he’s been a big part of.
The daily per capita net availability of foodgrain has been falling steadily and dangerously during the “reform” years. If we take five-year averages for those years from 1992 to 2010 — the figure declined every five years without exception (see table “Declining per capita …”). From 474.9 grams of cereals and pulses for the years of 1992-96 to 440.4 grams for the period 2007-2010 (The 2011 figure is yet to come). A fall of 7.3 per cent. There has not been a single five-year period that saw an upward blip.
What about the 20 years preceding the reforms? That is 1972-1991? The per capita availability figure rose every five-year period without exception. From 433.7 for 1972-76, to 480.3 grams in 1987-91. An increase of 10.7 per cent.
Not reaching the needy
Consider the average for the latest five years for which data are available. It was 441.4 grams for the period 2006-2010. That’s lower than the corresponding period half a century ago. It was 446.9 for the years 1956-60. Not great news for a nation where malnutrition among children under five is nearly double that of Sub-Saharan Africa’s. (A point the India Human Development Report 2011 — from a wing of the Planning Commission — concedes).
If production is rising, which it is; if the upper classes are eating a lot better, which they are; and if per capita availability keeps declining, which it does — that implies three things at least. That foodgrain is not getting to those who most need it. That the gap between those eating more and those eating less is worsening. And that food prices and incomes of the poor are less and less in sync.
It also tells us how disastrous the reforms-era policy of “targeting” through the Public Distribution System has been. The poor have not gained from “targeting” in the PDS. They have been the targets. The “reforms” period has seen more poor and hungry people shut out of the PDS in practice. The latest budget suggests that “targeting” is about to get more ruthless. A universal PDS covering all would cost much less than what the government gives away each year in concessions to the corporate sector.
Small wonder that Mr. Pawar sticks to aggregate numbers in his claims of records. He stays with production in absolute numbers, because that’s rising. As the Big Boss of Cricket in India (and the planet) Mr. Pawar would not be satisfied with totalling up how many runs a batsman of his makes. He’d divide it by the number of innings the batter has played. He’d perhaps even look at the number of balls he faced, strike rate and so on. But when it comes to his boss role on foodgrain, aggregate figures will do. The big numbers look so nice. Why complicate things by looking at how much foodgrain is available per Indian? That too, per day or year?
Economic Survey document
For those worried about food availability, though, it matters. The highest figure for any year in our history was the 510.1 grams for 1991. Aha! Chalk one up for the reformers? Not really. The data are based on the agricultural year — i.e. July to June. So the 1991 figure corresponds to the production of July 1990 to June 1991. Manmohan Singh made his speech launching the reforms on July 24, 1991. And the average for 2010, after nearly two decades of “reforms,” was 440.4 grams.
The decline across the reforms years has been dismal. Indeed, some five-year periods in this era compare poorly even with those in the pre-Green Revolution years. For instance, 2006-10 throws up worse figures than 1956-1960. All figures from 1961 are seen in the latest Economic Survey of 2011-12. (http://indiabudget.nic.in/es2011-12/estat1.pdf See A22, 1.17. Last year’s survey has data going back to 1951.
This, of course, is the point at which someone pops up with: “It’s all due to the population. The poor breed like flies.” Is it? The compound annual growth of population was much higher in pre-reform decades than it is now. But the CAGR for food production was always higher and ahead of it. Even in 1961-1971, when the CAGR for population was 2.24 per cent it was 2.37 for grain production. In 2001-10, the figure for population was just 1.65 per cent. But foodgrain production lagged behind even that figure, at 1.03 per cent. (For the growth rate in foodgrain, we have not taken 2010-11 into account. We have only advance estimates for that year and these can vary quite a bit from final figures).
In all the southern states the fertility rate is either at replacement level or even below it. And the population growth rate is falling everywhere in the country, and at quite a rapid pace. Yet, per capita availability has declined. So the population claim does not fly. There may be one-off years in which the growth rate of food production (or even per capita availability) gets better, or much worse. Hence, looking at five-year or decadal averages makes more sense. And the trends those show are awful.
This is a context where foodgrain production per capita is on the decline. Where, however, the buffer stocks with the government in fact show an increasing trend. So per capita availability is in fact declining at a faster rate. It means the poor are so badly hit that they cannot buy, or have access to, even the limited grain on offer.
True, this will invite yowls of rage from the Marie Antoinette School of Economics (or ‘Let-them-eat-cake’ crowd). For them the decline only shows that people now care less for cereals and pulses. They’re eating much better stuff since they’re doing so much better. So much better that we’d be lucky to reach Sub-Saharan Africa’s rate of child malnourishment in a few years. Or improve enough in the Global Hunger Index (GHI) to challenge an upstart Rwanda in a few years. Presently we rank 67 in the GHI (out of 81 countries with the worst food security status). Rwanda clocks in ahead of us at rank 60. India’s GHI value in 2011 was worse than it was 15 years before that in 1996.
We’ve spent 20 years promoting cash crops at the expense of food crops. No one knows quite how much land has been converted from the latter to the former, but it would run to lakhs of acres. As food crop cultivation has grown less remunerative, many have abandoned it. As farming tanks across large swathes of the country, more and more land lies fallow. The owners have given up on the idea of making a living from it. Close to seven-and-a-half million people quit farming between 1991 and 2001 (and we still await the figures for 2001-11). Two decades of policies hostile to smallholders, but paving the way for corporate control, have seen public investment in agriculture crash. No surprise then that foodgrain production is “growing” only in absolute numbers but falling at an alarming rate in per capita terms.
A quarter of a million women in Kerala are showing us how to earn livelihoods with dignity.
If the malnourished in India formed a country, it would be the world’s fifth largest — almost the size of Indonesia. According to Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), 237.7 million Indians are currently undernourished (up from 224.6 million in 2008). And it is far worse if we use the minimal calorie intake norms accepted officially in India. By those counts <http://www.thehindu. com/news/resources/article2803621.ece> (2200 rural/2100 urban), the number of Indians who cannot afford the daily minimum could equal the entire population of Europe.
Yet, the Indian elite shrieks at the prospect of formalising a universal right to food. Notwithstanding the collective moral deficit this reveals, it also shows that the millions of Indians whose food rights are so flagrantly violated are completely voiceless in the policy space. India’s problem is not only to secure food, but to secure food justice.
What can food justice practically mean? First, to prevent situations where grains rot while people die — a very basic principle of distributive justice. But it has to mean a lot more: people must have the right to produce food with dignity, have control over the parameters of production, get just value for their labour and their produce. Mainstream notions of food security ignore this dimension.
Food justice must entail both production and distribution. Its fundamental premise must be that governments have a non-negotiable obligation to address food insecurity. They must also address the structural factors that engender that insecurity. Most governments, however, appear neither willing nor able to deliver food justice. It needs therefore the devolution of power and resources to the local level, where millions of protagonists, with their knowledge of local needs and situations, can create a just food economy.
This is not quite as utopian as it may sound. Something on these lines has been unfolding in Kerala — a collective struggle of close to a quarter million women who are farming nearly 10 million acres of land. The experiment, “Sangha Krishi,” or group farming, is part of Kerala’s anti-poverty programme “Kudumbashree.” Initiated in 2007, it was seen as a means to enhance local food production. Kerala’s women embraced this vision enthusiastically. As many as 44, 225 collectives of women farmers have sprung up across the State. These collectives lease fallow land, rejuvenate it, farm it and then either sell the produce or use it for consumption, depending on the needs of members. On an average, Kudumbashree farmers earn Rs.15,000-25,000 per year (sometimes higher, depending on the crops and the number of yields annually).
Kudumbashree is a network of 4 million women, mostly below the poverty line. It is not a mere ‘project’ or a ‘programme’ but a social space where marginalised women can collectively pursue their needs and aspirations. The primary unit of Kudumbashree is the neighbourhood group (NHG). Each NHG consists of 10-20 women; for an overwhelming majority, the NHG is their first ever space outside the home. NHGs are federated into an Area Development Society (ADS) and these are in turn federated into Community Development Societies (CDSs) at the panchayat level. Today, there are 213,000 NHGs all over Kerala. Kudumbashree office-bearers are elected, a crucial process for its members. “We are poor. We don’t have money or connections to get elected — only our service,” is a common refrain. These elections bring women into politics. And they bring with them a different set of values that can change politics.
The NHG is very different from a self-help group (SHG) in that it is structurally linked to the State (through the institutions of local self-government). This ensures that local development reflects the needs and aspirations of communities, who are not reduced to mere “executors” of government programmes. What is sought is a synergy between democratisation and poverty reduction; with Kudumbashree, this occurs through the mobilisation of poor women’s leadership and solidarity. “Sangha Krishi” or group farming is just one example of how this works. It is transforming the socio-political space that women inhabit — who in turn transform that space in vital ways.
This experiment is having three major consequences. First, there is a palpable shift in the role of women in Kerala’s agriculture. This was earlier limited to daily wage work in plantations — at wages much lower than those earned by men. Thousands of Kudumbashree women — hitherto underpaid agricultural labourers — have abandoned wage work to become independent producers. Many others combine wage work with farming. With independent production comes control over one’s time and labour, over crops and production methods and, most significantly, over the produce. Since the farmers are primarily poor women, they often decide to use a part of their produce to meet their own needs, rather than selling it. Every group takes this decision democratically, depending on levels of food insecurity of their members. In Idukki, where the terrain prevents easy market access and food insecurity is higher, farmers take more of their produce home — as opposed to Thiruvananthapuram where market access is better and returns are higher.
Second, “Sangha Krishi” has enabled women to salvage their dignity and livelihoods amidst immense adversity. Take the story of Subaida in Malappuram. Once widowed and once deserted, with three young children, she found no means of survival other than cleaning dead bodies. Hardly adequate as a livelihood, it also brought her unbearable social ostracism. Now Subaida is a proud member of a farming collective and wants to enter politics. In the nine districts this writer visited, there was a visible, passionate commitment to social inclusion amongst Kudumbashree farmers.
Our survey of 100 collectives across 14 districts found that 15 per cent of the farmers were Dalits and Adivasis and 32 per cent came from the minority communities.
Third, “Sangha Krishi” is producing important consequences for the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme in Kerala. Because of Kerala’s high wages for men, the MGNREGS in Kerala has become predominantly a space for women (93 per cent of the employment generated has gone to women where the national average is 50). From the beginning, synergies were sought between the MGNREGS, the People’s Plan and Kudumbashree. Kudumbashree farmers strongly feel this has transformed MGNREGS work.
“We have created life … and food, which gives life, not just 100 days of manual labour,” said a Perambra farmer. In Perambra, Kudumbashree women, working with the panchayat, have rejuvenated 140 acres that lay fallow for 26 years. It now grows rice, vegetables and tapioca. Farmers also receive two special incentives — an ‘area incentive’ for developing land and a ‘production incentive’ for achieving certain levels of productivity. These amounted to over Rs.200 million in 2009-10. They were combined with subsidised loans from banks and the State, and seeds, input and equipment from Krishi Bhavan and the panchayats.
However, serious challenges remain. Kudumbashree farmers are predominantly landless women working on leased land; there is no certainty of tenure. Lack of ownership also restricts access to credit, since they cannot offer formal guarantees on the land they farm. Whenever possible, Kudumbashree collectives have started buying land to overcome this uncertainty. But an alternative institutional solution is clearly needed. It is also difficult for women to access resources and technical know-how — the relevant institutions (such as crop committees) are oriented towards male farmers. There is also no mechanism of risk insurance.
Is this a sustainable, replicable model of food security? It is certainly one worth serious analysis. First, this concerted effort to encourage agriculture is occurring when farmers elsewhere are forced to exit farming — in large numbers. It re-connects food security to livelihoods, as any serious food policy must. But more importantly, the value of Sangha Krishi lies in that it has become the manifestation of a deep-rooted consciousness about food justice amongst Kerala’s women. Kannyama, the president of Idamalakudy, Kerala’s first tribal panchayat, says she wants to make her community entirely self-sufficient in food. She wants Sangha Krishi produce to feed every school and anganwadi in her panchayat — to ensure that children get local, chemical-free food. Elsewhere, Kudumbashree farmers plan to protest the commercialisation of land. Even in the tough terrain of Idukki’s Vathikudy panchayat, women were taking a census of fallow land in the area that they could cultivate. Some 100,000 women practise organic farming and more wish to. Kudumbashree farmers speak passionately about preventing ecological devastation through alternative farming methods.
In the world of Sangha Krishi, food is a reflection of social relations. And only new social relations of food, not political manoeuvres, can combat the twin violence of hunger and injustice.
(Ananya Mukherjee is Professor and Chair of Political Science at York University, Toronto. Her latest work is a co-edited volume in collaboration with UNRISD, Geneva (Business Regulation and Non-state actors: Whose Standards? Whose Development? Routledge Studies in Development Economics, 2012.))
Image: Amit Dave/Reuters
HARSH REALITY Farmers plough a field before sowing cotton seeds in a village in Gujarat. While agricultural growth has picked up in the last seven years, the reality is also that farm business income has started declining.
With little breakthrough in terms of technology, chances of production increases are bleak. Nor is the external environment of any help with prices of agricultural commodities expected to remain low because of conditions in the developed countries. But even in our own country, the deceleration in growth rates and the increasing fiscal deficit implies stagnation in demand of agricultural commodities and reduction in subsidies.
Not so long ago, the story of farmers’ suicides was all over the media. But just when it looked like we have gone past this sad episode, stories of farmers’ suicides have again started pouring in and this time from hitherto agriculturally advanced states such as West Bengal. But how can we expect the farmer to produce and feed the country when he himself/herself is staring at debt and losses?
However, the plight of the Indian farmer has received less attention than agriculture as the source of food and raw material. But herein lies the catch. Most of the working class dependent on agriculture, including agricultural labourers and marginal cultivators, are also net consumers of food. How can we ensure that those who produce food also consume the food that they produce?
Raising incomes through state support is the only way out. The largest subsidies are delivered to farmers in the most developed nations. By all means, the Indian farmer is the least protected. But here we have taken away whatever subsidies they had on fertilisers, distorted the market for fertilisers and energy prices, and are now staring at the proposal of increase in diesel prices which is imminent any day.
The saving grace is the system of Minimum Support Prices which remains the only effective subsidy. But even this is available for only two crops—rice and wheat. Why is it that we are self-sufficient in rice and wheat, but are net importers of almost all other major food crops such as pulses and oilseeds? Partly because these crops do not enjoy even this minimum support from the government. But even this measure of support may be in danger if we move to cash transfers instead of actual delivery of food grains through the public distribution system (PDS).
The present NFSB may have many flaws including the fact that it still relies on the leaky TPDS (targeted public distribution system) rather than an efficient universal PDS as has been shown by many states. But the real failure is that it is silent on committing anything on improving the well-being of the farmer. The limited provisions have been put merely as enabling provisions rather than integral component of the Act itself.
The real success of the food bill should not be measured in terms of how much food grain is delivered through the public distribution system. The food bill will be a success when there is nobody demanding food at cheap subsidised prices through the fair price shops. But that will only happen when the livelihood of the farmers and agricultural labourers, which constitute bulk of the poor, increases to the extent that they do not need subsidised food. Either way, the only way out is to revive agriculture, but more importantly, revive the fortunes of those whose livelihood depends on it.
What needs to be done
- A Multi-sector Response to Food Security
- Food for All through Innovative Partnerships
- Country Responses to Food Security
- Fostering Food Security through Regional Cooperation and Integration
- Investments for Enhancing Productivity
- Investing in Natural Resource Management and Environment Services
- Building Resilience Against Vulnerability
- Innovative Financing for Food Security
- Investments in Connectivity
- Perspectives from Key Stakeholders
- Road Map for Change
- Appendix: Program of the Investment Forum for Food Security in Asia and the Pacific
Jan 6, 2012, 04.40AM IST
Q: Is food security just a concept or is achievable?
A: Of course it is attainable. There are three main issues. First is availability of food in the market. For which farmers have to produce more. Second is access to food, whether one has the money to buy it. That’s what the (food security) Bill aims to achieve. Third is absorption of food in the body, which is a function of clean drinking water. Drinking water is the most important component. That is why Rajiv Gandhi Water Mission, Total Sanitation Mission and National Rural Health Mission should be brought together under the food security Act. Otherwise, the child may eat a lot but, what we call leaky pot, yet not absorb the food.
Q: What should be the approach to ensure food for all?
A: One is the conception to cremation lifecycle approach. That is why there are different programmes such as the school meal programme, programmes for pregnant women and so on to feed right from conception stage to death. We have to enlarge the food basket through the public distribution system. Not only wheat and rice but nutria-millets such as jowar, ragi, bajra, madua should be included in the PDS. In China, out of over 500 million tones food grains, 140 million tones are nutria-cereals and millets. It is 50 to 60 million ton in our country. Secondly, women must be declared head of households for entitlement under the PDS and food security Act. They should be considered in-charge of food security in the family. That is important because women can ensure nutrition from newborns to the eldest in the family.
Q: How can cereals and millet production increase?
A: Procurement is the greatest stimulation for production. The more the government will procure, the famers will produce more. Farmers will increase production if the consumption capacity in the country increases. We should look at grains other than rice and wheat which are nutritious to have a big range. The crop holiday in Andhra Pradesh should be a wakeup call when farmers stopped production because there was no demand.
Q: Are you happy with Food Security Bill?
A: The Bill is somewhat defective in some respects. It calls for selective PDS. I personally believe there should be universal PDS as is in Tamil Nadu and Kerala. The country should follow the principle of exclusion as against inclusion. Categorization of below poverty line (BPL), above poverty line (APL) and targeted PDS are controversial issues and there is large amount of corruption in such classification. One has to pay money to be a BPL. Why to get into those? There should be transparent criteria to exclude people. For example income tax payers, those who own a car and so on can be excluded from food security provisions. The proposed food security Act is the largest social protection against hunger anywhere in the world. Its success will depend upon how far we are able to reach all those who need food. In the current approach, lots of street children and the destitute will be left out.
Q: So what should be done?
A: I am pressing for the principal of exclusion. Besides putting a number of transparent criteria for excluding those from food security, selfexclusion should be the guiding principle. Tell people that those who do not need food should not ask for it. Even if you include a man who should be excluded doesn’t matter. But never should a deserving man be excluded. Freedom from hunger is freedom from corruption. The Bill must be based on a culture of honesty. Don’t develop a bill on a negative basis that people are always dishonest. The Bill has been referred to the select committee. I am sure it will take evidence from a large number of people and have a transparent criteria.
Q: Why are you a votary of traditional technology?
A: I am for combination of traditional and modern technologies, what is called eco technology. We must combine the good ecological principles of the past with the latest technology. Take for example Koraput, which was recognized as globally important agriculture heritage system. The conservation of biodiversity by tribals is commendable and is very important. Traditional wisdom is very relevant. Don’t destroy the good habits, rather build on previous knowledge. Don’t discard something because it is old or don’t worship something because it is new.We must ensure that technology is economically, environmentally and socially sustainable.
Q: How come you got so much interested in Koraput?
A: I started my career in Central Rice Research Institute at CRRI Cuttack in 1954. Soon after my post-doctoral research at the University of Wisconsin, I had joined CRRI. I had visited Koraput many times then. The tribals protecting biodiversity should be encouraged more. This will help stop genetic erosion.
Q:What is the biggest challenge for food security?
A: Conservation of natural resources, mainly land and water, is the biggest challenge. Land is going out of agriculture. Real estate has become so expensive. This is becoming more important in the context of climate change.
Q: Are we prepared for climate change?
A: The world is not prepared so far. People need to be aware of the impact of climate change, which is real. Thousands of people living close to the sea coast will become climate refugees. The world must take anticipatory action to check the impact of high temperature, floods, and other fallouts of climate change. Diversification of food grains is also very important in context of climate change because one or the other of these can be produced in adverse climate conditions, which we don’t know as yet. The business as usual approach people must change.
Q: Do you foresee a workable solution to climate change?
A: Well, the solution has to be both technical and political. We need a synergy between science and public policy. Everybody starting from the grassroots level to the world leaders must be climate-change literate. Our foundation (MSSRF Foundation) has started a programme called ‘Every child is a scientist’. Not that everyone will grow to become a scientist. But everyone must have a questioning mind and understand what is biology, climate and so on.