The Right to Food In The World’s Hungriest Nation

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India ends each year with an abundance of grain. Why is chronic malnutrition persisting in the fastest growing economy?

What happens when people go hungry for prolonged periods of time? Malnourished children can suffer from stunted growth and the wasting of their muscles. And while the debate rages on as to whether malnourishment is reversible, the figures in India haven’t changed much since 1990. According to UNICEF data, more than a third of children under the age of five are malnourished in India.

India has been food surplus for decades, but millions of tons of food rot away in warehouses even as people starve. In 2001, godowns of the Food Corporation of India (FCI) in Jaipur were brimming with over 40 million tons of grain. The FCI, a behemoth agency tasked with handling the supply-chain management of India’s Public Distribution System (PDS), took in more grains than they could handle – resulting in millions of tons of grain being left in the open. And, rains played havoc – the FCI Jaipur saw grains rot from exposure to rains.

Less than five kilometres from the godowns, people were starving. About 47 tribals and dalits were estimated to have starved to death in the vicinity of a godown. In one village, locals were eating on alternate days in a food-saving measure called “rotation eating.”

With this incident of starvation, the Right to Food Campaign was born in India, seeking to make the availability of food an enforceable right.

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12 years later, the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government passed the National Food Security Act (NFSA) – a year before general elections were to be held across India. At the time, critics called it a bid for vote security rather than food security. But it didn’t save the UPA from losing the election. Their successor, the NDA, was left with much of the work in getting the Act enforced across the country. India’s federal setup meant that each state took their own time to be ready for the act.

It was only by November 2016, that the Right to Food covered every state in India. Ironically, it was two of India’s most well-to-do states that implemented it last: Kerala and Tamil Nadu.

Reaching the people

The NFSA is easily the world’s largest experiment in providing food security to hundreds of millions. So, why does food wastage and malnutrition still persist in India?

Put simply, the Act mandates the provision of five kilogrammes of subsidized foodgrains (rice, wheat, and millet) for up to two-thirds of the Indian population. It accompanies existing schemes such as the Antyodaya Anna Yojan (which provides 35 kg of grains to the ‘poorest of the poor’), the Midday Meal Scheme (which ensures a single, nutritious meal to around 120 million children in primary and upper primary schools), the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) and various state-level programmes.

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Identifying the beneficiaries was a task left to the state governments. This, combined with the requirement of a ration card or in some cases a Below Poverty Line (BPL) card left many out of the food safety net. A study conducted in 2105 by Rajnish Kumar Rai and Patturaja Selvaraj looked at the experiences of migrant workers in urban areas with the NFSA. None of those interviewed had the required forms of identification – and struggled to get the mandated due of food each day. None of them were able to avail of any of the government’s subsidies. In fact, the study found that they enjoyed far greater nutrition back home in their villages and not in the cities.

Since the publication of this study, India has issued identification cards called Aadhar to more than 99 percent of adults in the country. Despite some to-and-fro regarding mandatory Aadhar enrolment, the cards can now be used to avail of subsidized grains from PDS outlets. In some states, it’s been a fair success. Pilferage has gone down significantly. Many who did not have a ration card signed up for one to avail the scheme.

What hasn’t changed much are child malnutrition statistics. Here, programme and state-level approaches might be required to get a long-run estimate. The ICDS has had a notable impact through its Anganwadi centres – but child malnutrition remains high. According to the last National Family Health Survey of 2015-16, 38.4 percent of children under the age of five were stunted and 21 percent were wasted.

Some households who have registered under the NFSA have not added new family members to their lists – meaning they still receive old allocation amounts. Addressing this will be key to tackling the malnutrition figures of newborn children.

Student surveys conducted by the Right to Food campaign (whose PIL resulted in the NFSA) in 2016 showed that Chhatisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Odisha and West Bengal were making good progress towards covering most people under a food safety net. States like Bihar and Jharkhand lagged behind with lower penetration levels and higher reportage of poor-quality grains.

In 2017-18, India allocated Rs. 145,338.6 crore ($22.5 billion) to its food subsidy programmes alone. It’s a number that triggers debate and discussion on paper. But it’s also a social justice experiment on the largest possible scale – one whose true outcome is yet to be measured. A national level survey of malnutrition is underway in partnership with UNESCO. Its results, as well as those of the National Sample Survey and National Rural Health Mission Survey, will be the next vital indicators of food security in the post-Aadhar and post-NFSA age.

Other issues such as improving the quality of nutrition provided are being debated. Some think-tanks have suggested including locally-sourced cuisines, others have spoken of caste-discrimination at the PDS centres, suggesting building more PDS centres in areas inhabited by Dalits. The many dimensions of food security mean that all of this will take time and planning by India’s nodal agencies.

Tackling food insecurity in India is among the country’s largest ongoing operations. ‘Experts’, academics and policy-makers alike will be contesting to make a difference on the ground. Whatever the policy outcome, the paradox of massive economic growth with sub-Saharan levels of malnutrition cannot be allowed to continue.

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