India’s Proposed Right to Food Security Bill Won’t Solve the Country’s Crisis

Annie Castellani

 

Foreigners traveling in India are often struck by a paradox between its stupefying beauty, born of a vibrant culture and landscape, and its mind-boggling poverty, perpetuated by insufficient public services. Yet, despite the glaring signs of faulty resource delivery, sanitation, and public health systems that contribute to the misery of millions of people in the world’s largest democracy, India’s politicians often seem focused on gimmicky fixes to treating problems instead of long-term solutions. Such fixes include the enticing promise of basic rights and services through sweeping, impractical legislation. If the Indian government is really serious about fighting poverty, it should prioritize national policies that emphasize sustainable solutions. 

 

Take the highly contested Food Security Bill, championed by Sonia Gandhi, leader of the ruling party and majority alliance in India’s parliament. The proposed landmark bill guarantees subsidized food to two-thirds of 1.2 the billion people who live in India, making it the largest experiment in food security worldwide. It obligates the Indian government to procure and distribute subsidized grains to approximately 800 million people, including 50 percent of urban-dwelling Indians and 75 percent of those living in rural areas. Under the proposed legislation, the government will provide 5kg of grain per person on a monthly basis at set prices for kilograms of rice, wheat, and millet.

 

Proponents of the Food Security Bill should be commended for trying to tackle systemic poverty. A countrywide effort to make food more affordable to almost 70 percent of the population is a heroic task. A national policy focused on allowing all citizens to “live a life with dignity,” as the draft bill notes, is a huge step in the right direction towards equality and opportunity for all members of Indian society.

 

However, though noble on its face, the Food Security Bill completely misses the mark. As some critics point out, a host of problems call into question the efficacy of this ostensibly populist legislation. These problems reinforce widespread speculation that the ruling India National Congress party wants to pass the bill on the eve of a parliamentary election year to curry favor with the electorate. The need for sweeping legislation is of particular importance at a time when the Indian economy crawls after years of high growth and allegations of corruption and bribery recently forced the resignation of the law and railway ministers.

 

Regardless of the motivations behind the bill, it suffers from a number of fatal flaws. Though the stated goal is to fight malnutrition by providing food security, the proposed solution focuses on eliminating hunger. The bill fails to offer remedies for the root causes of malnutrition and equally important elements of food security, such as access to clean water, sanitation facilities, and public health education. It also eviscerates a comprehensive definition of food security by limiting the potential scope of enforceable rights arising from the legislation. The poor infrastructure underlying India’s food delivery systems and damaging economic consequences of the legislation are also problematic. Such shortcomings underscore the need for the Indian government to revise the bill to address the core causes of malnutrition and invest in sustainable solutions, instead of placating the public by passing laws that are progressive in name only.

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 The government’s proposed course of action, provision of affordable grains, tackles hunger. Yet, the legislation’s stated purpose is to combat malnutrition and provide food security. How will pumping additional tons of cheap grains through the country’s inept public distribution system meet those goals?

 

While hunger remains a major issue in India – according to the UN’s World Food Programme, a quarter of the world’s hungry live in India – malnutrition is endemic. The World Food Programme estimates that nearly half of all children in India under the age of five old suffer from some type of malnutrition and more than half of pregnant women suffer from anemia, caused by an iron deficiency. The bill’s proposed solution therefore addresses only a piece of its stated goals.

 

Though eradication of hunger is an important end, no amount of food grains can alleviate malnutrition. Rice, millet, and wheat offer calories to fight hunger, but a healthy diet requires foods with higher amounts of vitamins and minerals, such as fruits, vegetables, and animal products, which tend to be more expensive. As Howarth Bouis, the director of HarvestPlus, a Washington, D.C. based nonprofit focused on fighting malnutrition, recently noted in one of India’s most popular daily newspapers, over the past few decades prices for these foods have continued to rise, while grain prices have decreased. If the government stays set on distributing subsidized staple grains to improve nutrition, then it must fortify these foods.

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Yet, even if the government improves the nutritious content of subsidized staple grains through processes that inject vitamins and minerals, the Food Security Bill falls short. No matter how nutritious subsidized food may be, malnutrition will continue to wreck havoc on Indian communities if the government ignores its root causes, including poor water supply, sanitation facilities, and public health education.

 

The shortcomings of these services are numerous and complicated. Suffice to say that inadequate access to clean water – whether due to lack of toilets, insufficient public health campaigns, ineffective water treatment facilities, religious practices, a culture of waste, empty public water taps, diminishing water tables, or chemical pollutants – contributes immeasurably to malnutrition in India. A trip through this country will quickly uncover the stain of these ills on its beautiful landscape, including open sewers running down streets and black rivers filled with sludge.

 

Just last month, Bloomberg health and science reporter Adi Narayan summed up the issue well when he cited scientists’ concerns that repeated exposure to waterborne viruses, parasites, and disease-causing bacteria will hinder any efforts to defeat malnutrition through diet. In fact, it may even lead to death. Diarrhea, due to unclean water, poor hygiene, and inadequate sanitation, causes more than 1,600 daily deaths in India, according to the nonprofit Water.org.

Rather than battling over whether to supply cheap food grains, perhaps India’s politicians should spend more time focusing on initiatives to improve access to clean water and sanitation facilities. They also might increase efforts to educate the public about good hygiene practices, including hand washing and storing food sources far away from waste and excrement.

 

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 By ignoring these core causes of malnutrition, the bill actually diminishes the full meaning of food security, which may hinder the public’s ability to enforce rights under the legislation. Food Minister K.V. Thomas sees the bill as a positive shift to a rights-based approach to development, ostensibly a big win for the Right to Food Campaign that has been actively pushing for legislation for over a decade. Yet, a bill entitling almost 70 percent of the population to subsidized rice, wheat, and millet does not exactly grant citizens a right to food security, which includes more than temporary eradication of hunger.

 

Notably, a clause in the proposed bill would allow the government to escape liability for failing to provide subsidized food in certain situations, including drought and fires. Confusingly, this force majeure provision seems to take away essential rights to subsidized food at exactly the time when the poor most need them. This is particularly true in a country where between 60 to 80 percent of irrigated land relies upon groundwater, including monsoon rains.

 

Additionally, India’s court system is notorious for taking years to adjudicate a case. So, even if the bill passes and people try to enforce their rights before the statutorily created State Commission, endowed with the powers of a civil court, this grievance mechanism may not render timely judgments. If the bill’s proponents are serious, then they need to ensure that the grievance mechanisms have sufficient capacity to handle a potential landslide of complaints. Proposed call centers and help lines are not enough.

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 The Food Security Bill also raises concerns about the poor infrastructure underlying India’s food delivery systems and the prospect of damaging economic consequences. If the current track record is any indication, then India’s public distribution system, through which subsidized food already flows to some 400 million people, will be woefully inadequate. The existing system – managed by the notoriously inefficient and corrupt state-run Food Corporation of India – suffers from high leakage rates, with estimates of siphoned food hovering around 50 percent. By many accounts, food also rots out in the open.

 

Incredulously, India actually grows enough food to feed its population, according to the World Food Programme. In fact, Devinder Sharma, an accomplished food policy analyst and agricultural scientist, recently pointed out that some of India’s most hunger-stricken regions also happen to be the places that produce the most food.

 

Not surprisingly, opponents of the Bill also point to its extensive costs, estimated at approximately $21 billion or 1.2 trillion rupees per year. Concern over potential economic fallout from the legislation is well founded. The rapid growth of the Indian economy, a steady 9 percent from 2005 through 2012, has declined to 4.6 percent over the past year.

 

If the bill passes, the Indian government will need to reform the public distribution system through additional storage facilities and transportation services. The Food Corporation of India will have to procure and redistribute grains from a handful of producer states. Infrastructure building, procurement, and redistribution on such a massive scale through an inept public distribution system will undoubtedly incur high operating costs. 

Some critics believe that the bill could cause distortion of the agricultural market and significant inflation. Farmers worry that if the government becomes the largest purchaser of grains, it will regulate margins between the price farmers get and the fixed price consumers pay, by prohibiting price increases.

 

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 If the Indian government remains set on using excessive government funds for the public good, then these expenditures should be put towards local, sustainable solutions. Investments in the future can reduce long-term reliance on subsidies, create a strong agricultural sector and modern infrastructure, and give the people a sense of ownership over their lives and communities. Local control over activities is particularly important in a country with 28 different states, as well as numerous languages and religions.

 

For instance, the government might utilize this money for research and development in the agricultural sector. After all, food security can include sustainable farming methods, such as locally grown food, responsible planting practices, infrastructure building, and development of new technologies. Sustainable farming practices also might address efficient land and water use to compensate for scarcity of water due to over-farming and climate change.

 

Importantly, this approach may keep farmers employed at a time when large numbers of them continue to pursue different careers. For instance, from the period between fiscal year 2005 and 2010, approximately 14.5 million farmers left the agriculture profession.

 

Additionally, a focus on sustainable, long-term solutions may actually work, unlike gimmicky fixes that make promises the government cannot keep. For instance, HarvestPlus is working with the Indian government to improve the nutritional content of staple foods through biofortification. Last year, farmers in the state of Maharashstra used an iron-enriched millet seed developed from a collaboration between HarvestPlus and Nirmal Seeds Pvt. Ltd. Notably, this product does not involve genetically modified organisms.

 

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 Although India’s ruling party deserves credit for trying to tackle massive poverty, the Food Security Bill presents the wrong approach to problems with malnutrition and food security. No matter how hard they may try to avoid real solutions, the underlying causes of hardship are too ubiquitous to ignore. India’s politicians should therefore halt this destructive legislation in its tracks and chart a new, sustainable path that will actually bring about positive results in the places where systemic change matters most.

 

Author Bio:

Annie Castellani is a contributing writer at Highbrow Magazine.

 

Photos: Eric Parker (Flickr); Giancarlo de Luca (Fotopedia); Fraapestarrtje (Flickr); McKary Savage (Flickr); Voss217 (Flickr).

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