Right to Food, Hunger and Under-Nutrition In India

Kiran Sharma

Abstract Right to Food Campaign
Introduction: Food Security The Proposed Right to Food Act: Issues and Challenges
Hunger Food Security Ordinance 2013
Globalisation and the Poor Livelihood Diversification
Ethnicity, Caste and Poverty Policies and Programmes
Legal Framework for the Right to Food in India Conclusion


The paper examines the rights based approach in understanding food security and hunger in the context of India. It presents a nexus between the notion of right to food campaign and ordinance issues. The paper attempts to link the Millennium Development Goals with the implementation of the policies based on rights of the people.

1. Introduction: Food Security

The concept of food security gained its importance from the World Food Conference of 1974 and has been associated with the food self-sufficiency of individual countries (Babu and Quinn, 1994: 213). Numerous definitions for this concept have been developed. This term has been shifted from food production to importing capabilities at the macro level and focus on individuals and their ability to avoid hunger and under-nutrition. Food security as "access by all people at all times to enough food for an active healthy life," a definition that is widely accepted by agencies such as the World Bank and nongovernmental organizations. For the United Nations Development Program, food security means “all people at all times have both physical and economic access to basic food”. This requires not just enough food to go around but requires people to access food for what they are entitled for, by growing it for themselves, by buying it or by taking advantage of a public food distribution system. The availability of food is thus a necessary—but not a sufficient condition of security. People can still starve even when enough food is available”. Food insecurity has multiple components (Uvin 1994). DeRose, Messer and Millman (1999) mention food insecurity entails shortage, poverty, and deprivation. Food shortage focuses on the available food supply— how much is produced or where it can be acquired be it via markets, a food pantry, public assistance, or other source. Food poverty is most closely associated with inequality and emphasizes distribution and factors linked to barriers in accessing food. Food poverty exists when people are unable “to obtain sufficient food to meet the nutritional needs of their members due to inadequate income, poor access to productive resources, inability to benefit from private or public food transfers, or lack of other entitlements to food” (Uvin 1994:10). Such a definition echoes a central concern in addressing the issue of food security that emphasizes its importance as a basic human right (Dreze and Sen, 1989).

Tweeten and McClelland (1997) further argues about the three dimensions of food security. The first dimension, food availability, refers to the supply of foodstuffs in a country from production or imports. In this regard, there is a "bread basket" of food available for a population to consume, but this concept says nothing about how it is distributed. Thus, one should also consider a second dimension, food access, or the ability to acquire food for consumption, be it through purchase, production, or public assistance. Food may be plenteously available but not necessarily accessible. Thus, they reinforces the UNDP notion that food security is about more than just growth in agricultural productivity; it also considers questions of distribution. Finally there is food utilization, which concerns the physical use of food derived from human consumption. It may be true that food is available to individuals who have access, but vitamin deficiencies or health problems may result from the imbalanced diet of food that is consumed. Utilization means that food security encompasses questions that link availability and access to a country's ability to meet the basic health needs of its population.

It is in this backdrop, the paper examines the rights based approach in understanding food security and hunger in the context of India. It presents a nexus between the notion of right to food campaign and ordinance. The paper attempts to link the Millennium Development Goals with the implementation of the policies based on rights of the people.

Although the economic ability to acquire food is central, other barriers exist that systematically deny needed food access to peoples and nations, be it conflict and war, ethnicity, gender, rural-urban differences, or other inequalities. Food deprivation concerns the nutritional value of the available food that one can access. Food may be amply available but not be nutritionally balanced or serve the population’s health needs, particularly those most vulnerable such as children and pregnant or nursing mothers. Recent discussions of food security/insecurity add new elements: stability and sovereignty. Food stability reflects the ability to cope with sudden shocks (e.g., natural or technological/human-made disasters or war) or cyclical events (e.g., seasonal changes) that inhibit food shortage, poverty, or deprivation (FAO 2006b).

The recent global food crisis is an excellent example of how lack of food stability can have far-reaching ramifications—especially for the poor but even for those who are seemingly food secure such as those in the middle class who notice the pinch of rising food costs. McMichael (2004) defines food sovereignty as “the social right of a community or country to determine its own policies regarding food security (adequate supply and appropriate cuisine) and the cultural, social, and ecological conditions under which it is sustained” (also see Menezes 2001). The emphasis here is on choice, empowerment and avoiding food shortage, poverty, and deprivation in a global food system where individuals, villages and the countries can be powerless to feed themselves. Scanlan (2009) emphasizes the ability to acquire food as central to food security/insecurity, extending classic works by Sen (1981, 1984), who examines hunger’s distributional barriers and the deprivation of human capabilities that accompany poverty. Sen (1984) challenges pessimistic and long-standing Malthusian ideas on the perils of declining food productivity and supply-induced food insecurity, arguing that the state of affairs will not turn horribly in the future but that the hunger situation already is and has been throughout history. However, in doing this he also acknowledges there is no singular “world food problem” but rather multiple and interrelated problems detracting from the food security entitlements of the global citizenry (ibid.).

2. Hunger

From the most comprehensive perspective, hunger describes the feeling of discomfort that is the body’s signal that it is in need of more food. All people experience this feeling at times but, for most people, particularly in the developed world, this phenomenon is a fleeting event that is alleviated once the next meal is taken, causing no deep or permanent damage. When hunger or lack of food persists, however, the consequences can be devastating. Malnutrition is caused by more that just a lack of dietary energy. It can occur if the quality or variety of food is insufficient even if there is plenty in terms of quantity. Infections, disease, and unsafe water and sanitation can also cause malnutrition.[i] There are several ways in which malnutrition is measured. Wasting and underweight are indicators based on comparisons to healthy weight averages for specific ages. Stunting is an indicator of chronic malnutrition and is based upon height-for-age. Birthweight is strongly related to the birth mother’s health and impacts a baby’s long and short term chances for survival, its growth, and its long-term health and psychosocial development. Malnutrition is a process with consequences that may extend not only into later life, but also into future generations. A malnourished mother is more likely to give birth to an underweight or unhealthy child. Malnourishment often begins in uterus and can persist over a lifetime. In children, malnutrition is synonymous with growth failure.

3. Globalisation and the Poor

The Indian experience of globalization has gone through three phases in the last two decades- i) compulsions of the crisis of foreign currency reserves (1990-1996); ii) enchantment of liberalization (1996-2003); iii) quest for liberalization with ‘human face’ (2004 onwards). The present phase is marked by cautious optimism due to a number of paradoxical consequences (Kumar: 2011). For example, the process of liberalization has created consistency of growth rate around 7 per cent for the last several years. But it is mostly ‘jobless growth’. Similarly there has been enlargement of the ‘service sector’ accompanied with expansion of Information and Communication Technology network (ICT Revolution). But there is growing crisis in the agricultural sector due to negative growth rate causing suicide by farmers and rural unrest (ibid.). Poverty related conflicts are already in existence in the rural parts of India. There are more conflicts between the poverty affected social groups and others in the rural areas in recent decades, and poverty related conflicts have positive and negative potential in the context of political and economic reforms (Kumar 2004:191).

The liberalization, privatization and globalization (LPG) policies have created new poverty zones in the country, further marginalizing the tribal people. Poverty requires analytical understanding of the relationship between polity and society. In the context of India such an analysis has to pay attention to the meaning of the caste system, economic gradations and the imperatives of colonial and post-colonial polity. It recognizes the heuristic value of caste, gender, class and tribe as separate social categories as well as identifies the dynamics of conversions between them in the domain of chronic poverty. Poverty in India, whether it is measured in terms of income or nutritional levels, is concentrated among certain occupational classes and social categories in both the rural and urban sectors. Most of the rural poor are found among (i) peasant cultivators with very smallholdings, and (ii) agricultural workers from the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes.

Poverty is unevenly distributed across the country with concentration of poverty in certain states, districts and socio-economic groups, Further, poverty is not static and although some households manage to escape poverty, others are stuck in poverty while some non-poor households descend into poverty. Evidence from the panel data studies shows that there is both substantial persistence and substantial mobility into and out of poverty and that important determinant of poverty are caste, tribe and household demographic composition. The probability of being poor is greater for casual agricultural labour, landless households, illiterate households and larger households with more children (Mehta and Bhide 2003).

4. Ethnicity, Caste and Poverty

Ethnicity, caste and poverty are interrelated.[ii] Ethnicity and the term ‘ethnic’ are defined in a narrow sense as pertaining to common race and language. In a broader sense, they may refer to group identities based on race, religion, caste, language and tribe. The term ‘ethnicity’ sometimes confuses one with other terms like tribe, people, cultural group, linguistic group, religious group, community etc. In India, religion and caste are the two most important factors defining ethnicity. However, religious minorities and disadvantaged social groups are much poorer than the majority populations. Thorat and Louis (2003) view that in India exclusion involves social processes that exclude, discriminate, isolate and deprive some groups on the basis of group characteristics like caste and, ethnicity. There are number of such social groups which constitute a significant section of population. These include untouchable, tribals, nomadic, semi-nomadic, de-notified tribes, or ex-criminal tribes. These groups constitute about 250 millions population in 2002 about 167 untouchable, 86 millions of adivasis, and other small minorities. Although these social groups experienced exclusion and isolation there are difference in sources and process of deprivations.

Devalle (1992) sees three distinctive groups who have used ethnicity for subjugation: the colonial rulers, who used tribalism as a process to forcibly incorporate adivasis into the emerging market economy; the elite in postcolonial India, for whom “ethnicity can serve as an element of support for the hegemony of the dominant classes and of the state”(p. 16); and, finally, those whom she calls "reformist ethnicists," mainly missionaries and educated adivasis, who perpetuate the stereotype of what in the United States has often been labeled "the noble savage." Conversely, ethnicity can be used as a weapon by the adivasis in their fight against the hegemonic forces of the state. Devalle provides a striking example here of the relationship between culture and protest, proving that culture is inherently tied to historical tradition, and that it extends well beyond the ethnographic construct of isolated tribalism.

5. Legal Framework for the Right to Food in India

The right to food has been accorded universal recognition as a human right. It is clearly articulated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). Many international declarations and resolutions have focused on interpreting and strengthening the right to adequate food, including the Rome Declaration of World Food Security 1996, which reaffirms the right of every single person to have access to safe and nutritious food and the fundamental right to be free from hunger. [iii] The right to food is enshrined in the UDHR in Article 25 and in the. ICESCR. Article 11 of the Covenant recognizes the right of everyone to an adequate standard of living for himself and his family. The right to an adequate standard of living includes the right to adequate food, the right to be free from hunger, the right to water and the right to the progressive improvement of living conditions. India has ratified all international treaties relevant to the right to food, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (art. 6), the Convention on the Rights of the Child (arts. 24 and 27) and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (arts. 12 and 14). This means that, under its international commitments, the Government of India is obliged to ensure the right to food of all Indians. Article 21 of the Indian Constitution provides the fundamental right to the protection of life and personal liberty. This article mandates the state to ensure the right to life of citizens. This includes the right to live with dignity with at least two decent meals a day. Article 47 in the Indian constitution directs the states to raise the level of nutrition and the standard of living and to improve public health. The limitation has been that unlike the Fundamental Rights, which are unambiguously justiciable, the Directive Principles of State Policy (DPSP) have moral rather than legal binding.

6. Right to Food Campaign

The "Right to Food Campaign" is an informal network of organisations and individuals committed to the realisation of the right to food in India. It considers that everyone has a fundamental right to be free from hunger. The campaign believes that the primary responsibility for guaranteeing basic entitlements rests with the state. This has led to a sustained focus on legislation and schemes such as theNational Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA), theIntegrated Child Development Services (ICDS),Mid-day Meals (MDM) scheme, and the Public Distribution System (PDS). The campaign began with a writ petition submitted to the Supreme Court in April 2001 by People's Union for Civil Liberties, Rajasthan. More precisely, the petition demands that the country's gigantic food stocks should be used without delay to protect people from hunger and starvation. This petition led to a prolonged; public interest litigation (PUCL vs Union of India and Others, Writ Petition [Civil] 196 of 2001). Supreme Court hearings have been held at regular intervals, and significant "interim orders" have been issued from time to time. However, it soon became clear that the legal process would not go very far on its own. This motivated the effort to build a larger public campaign for the right to food.[iv]

7. The Proposed Right to Food Act: Issues and Challenges

The very proposal of the draft on right to food has raised several issues and challenges, which initiated debates in different forums. Most of these debates have focused on what the Act should include to control food crises and ensure food security. Some of the suggestions pertain to the need for breast feeding, clean drinking water, preserving bio-diversity, farmers rights over land and productive resources, promotion of organic farming, advocating the case for food sovereignty and a universal and more decentralized Public Distribution System (PDS) (Ray 2010; Shiva 2009: 4). A comprehensive Food Security Act is important and the government needs to have a three-pronged strategy of social assistance, proper nutrition for children and universal PDS. The draft of the Right to Food (Guarantee of Safety and Security) Bill has been widely criticized as there is excessive focus on freezing the number of poorest-of-the-poor who need guaranteed food entitlements. In addition, the Supreme Court-appointed panel on food security’s report says the number of people without food security is larger than the number of poor (officially declared). There is also a consensus that the existing schemes should continue such as Integrated Child Development Schemes (ICDS) Mid-Day Meal Schemes (MDMS), Annapurna Antodaya Yojana (AYY) but certain changes need to be incorporated to make it effective. The recent rally by more than 5000 concerned and active citizens from 18 States in the Capital on November 26, 2009 to demand immediate passage of the National Food Entitlement Act under the banner of the “Right to Food Campaign” signifies the urgency of securing entitlements based on a wide range of needs and demands of diverse sections of society which must be consolidated in the Act.

Food security has been seriously undermined by economic reforms, which promote export oriented cash crop at the cost of food crops. A non-sustainable corporate driven production model threatens small farmers who produce more food than large farmers (Shiva 2009: 4). Three major reforms that prevented famine in independent India have been reversed by economic reforms: land reforms have been undone for a new zamindari through SEZs, food system of public procurement and minimum support prices to the farmers has been handed to corporations and universal PDS has been dismantled allowing prices to rise and take food beyond the reach of the poor. The proposed Act has several flaws as it proposes a cutting of 10 kg in the quota and an increase by Re 1 or Rs 2 per kg since many States implementing the AAY provide 35 kg of wheat/rice at Rs 2 a kg (in Andhra Pradesh) and Re 1 (Tamil Nadu). In some States the PDS have included larger number of population and not just the BPL families, such as tribal and women headed families in Chhattisgarh; tribal, Dalit and all families of fisherpersons in Kerala and all families in Tamil Nadu who get 16 to 20 kg of rice at Re 1 a kg. (Karat, 2009:10).

8. Food Security Ordinance 2013

President Pranab Mukherjee signed Food Security Ordinance on 5th July, 2013, paving way for implementation of the controversial Food Security Bill. He said, "The opposition does not want to discuss or pass the Bill. So, ordinance was the only alternative with the government." About 2.43 crore poorest of the poor families covered under the Antyodaya Anna Yojana (AAY) scheme under PDS (Public Distribution System) would continue to get 35 kg of foodgrains per family per month but with legal entitlement. The Ordinance will have to be approved by both the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha within six months of promulgation. The UPA's flagship social welfare scheme, the food security ordinance, is expected to be rolled out in all Congress-ruled states on Aug 20, the birthday of former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi, informed sources said. The Congress leaders including Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, party president Sonia Gandhi, and vice president Rahul Gandhi, discussed the implementation of the ordinance, which aims to provide subsidized rations to around 67 percent of India's 1.2 billion populations. The right to food scheme is aimed to be a "game changer" ahead of the five assembly polls this year and the 2014 general elections.

9. Livelihood Diversification

Patterns of behavioral responses in relation to a food shortage have been documented previously by several researchers. Watts (1983) presented a sequence of options based on their reversibility and commitment of domestic resources (Maxwell, 1996). Modest dietary adjustments (such as eating less-preferred foods or reducing portion size), for example, are highly reversible strategies that do not jeopardize household assets. More extreme behaviors, such as sales of productive assets to purchase food, hold more long-term consequences for the household. As a food security situation worsens, households are more likely to employ strategies that are less reversible, and therefore represent a more severe form of coping and greater food insecurity. De Wall (1989) observed in the 1984/85 famine in Darfur, Sudan, that people chose to go hungry to preserve assets and future livelihood: “people are prepared to put up with considerable degrees of hunger, in order to preserve seed for planting, cultivate their own fields or avoid having to sell an animal”(ibid.). Furthermore, “avoiding hunger is not a policy priority for rural people faced with famine”. Others have similar findings, particularly in the context of analyzing the sequence of coping or adaptive strategies people follow in the times of drought. In part, these findings reflect an issue of time preference: people going hungry now, in order to avoid going more hungry later. However, there is a broader issue of livelihood at stake, in which objectives other than nutritional adequacy are pursued. In this context, Oshaug (1985) has argued that a society which can be said to enjoy food security is not only one which has reached to food norm but also developed the internal structures that will enable it to sustain the norm in the face of crises threatening to lower the achieved level of food consumption. Oshaug identified three kinds of households, “enduring households”, which maintain household food security on a continuous basis, “resilient households”, which suffer shocks but recover quickly and “fragile households”, which become increasingly insecure in response to shocks(ibid.). Similar approaches are found elsewhere and have recently been extended with the addition of “sensitivity”, a measure of the extent of change following a shock: the interaction between resilience and sensitivity provides a strong framework for analysis of food insecurity over time, with the most food insecure households characterized by high sensitivity and low resilience. The upshot of these ideas is a view of food security which identifies livelihood security as a necessary and often sufficient condition for food security (Maxwell, 1996) and which focuses on the long-term viability of the household as a productive and reproductive unit.

People residing in drought-prone areas acquire, over time, an ability to deal with food shortages and loss of income, and the complex methods for tackling hardship and ‘preserving assets which are needed to sustain a living in the future’ usually fall under the broad category of ‘coping strategies’ (Banik, 2007).The nature of such strategies employed varies depending on types of livelihood, land use patterns, the system of trade, marketing, credit, etc. and local populations ‘learn through experience of drought and famine which specific strategies are best in their situation’. The evidence on coping strategies in some drought prone rural India shows that one of the most favoured mechanisms is that of diversifying into non-farm activities and seasonally migrating to other areas. The literature also clearly shows that the households that are badly hit are those of small, marginal farmers and landless households and those belonging to lower castes, which also diversify first. In diversifying into non-farm activities, households simultaneously draw upon social relationships and informal credit networks. The social relationships and the traditional support system on caste lines continue to serve as a means of support in various ways, though these networks are weakening in many places. Interest rates rise during droughts, making it very difficult for the poor households to borrow, though these networks continue to be effective during normal years. The consumption needs of farmers during lean periods are partially met by drawing upon the reserve assets, which they build up during peak seasons. In addition, it is expected that during drought period, households also reduce their food intake and expenditure on social and religious commitments. Studies on livelihood strategies during drought and non-drought situation in the region highlights reliance on alternative sources (e.g. non-timber forest produce) for food items, borrowing from moneylenders, distress sale of assets and an increase in seasonal and forced migration. Other coping strategies to combat food insecurity involve the consumption of less preferred food, limiting the portion size of food, borrowing food or money, ‘maternal buffering’ (practice of a mother deliberately eating less to ensure children have enough to eat) and the skipping of meals for whole days. The use of tobacco and the consumption of locally brewed liquor (from mahua flower and date palm juice) also serve as important coping strategies against hunger (ibid.).

10. Policies and Programmes

Food and nutrition security depends upon a complex interplay of macro policy, agricultural policy, food and nutrition policy, access to education, health, potable drinking water, and sanitation, income and employment security, and social security. Food and nutrition security through government interventions in food-based programmes include the Public Distribution System (PDS), the Integrated Child Development Scheme (ICDS), the School's Mid-day Meal Scheme, Food-for-Work (FFW) and Antyodaya Anna Yojana (AAY) etc. The proposed National Food Security Act, 2009 assures that every BPL family in the country shall be entitled to 25 kg of wheat or rice per month at the rate of Rs.3/- per kg. The law is also proposed to be used to bring about systemic reforms in the Public Distribution System (PDS). Apart from the PDS, the two major programmes such as ICDS and Mid-day Meal Scheme aimed at providing nutritional security to pregnant women and lactating mothers, and young pre-school goers and school-goers, respectively. Both programmes are currently being closely monitored by the Supreme Court, which has given specific directions for strengthening them.

11. Conclusion

India has made impressive step in pursuit of a rights based development agenda and in terms of the justiciability of economic, social, and cultural rights including the right to food (FIAN:2007). Freedom from hunger or access to adequate food and nutrition is generally perceived as a Constitutional right in India. This has been mandated by extended interpretation of ‘the right to life’ (Article 21) in the Indian Constitution. The state has introduced a number of Acts to change the terms of its engagement with citizens through a new trajectory of governance in the context of livelihoods (Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee), human development (Right to Education), governance (Right to information), political space for women (50% reservation in Panchayati Raj (local government system) and control over natural resources (forest rights for tribal communities). Moreover, a major effort is currently on to provide a legislated right to food (ICPR, 2011, p.6). Right to food means, at least, right of everyone to be free from hunger and malnutrition, and the right of every person to have regular and permanent access to food, which is affordable, adequate, safe and nutritious, for a healthy and active life, and culturally acceptable to the population. Another idea that has come into more recent discussion is that of food sovereignty. Food Sovereignty means the primacy of people's and community's rights to food and food production, over trade concerns. This entails the support and promotion of local markets and producers over production for export and food imports ( Manoochehri, 2002). Millennium Development Goals recognizes that hunger and food insecurity are the core afflictions of poor people, and specifically sets out to halve the proportion of extremely poor and hungry people in the world. Rights based approaches, if reduced to technical and operational plans that ignore political context and power relations, will fail to be effective in promoting social justice in a sustainable way.


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