India’s food security act: Myths and reality

The reforms promoted by Prime Minister Singh do not go far enough to help food production and the hungry.

To match Special Report FOOD/
Costly modern farming techniques may be the reason farmers make up half of the hungry in India [Reuters]

The debate on the Food Security Act is based on myths on both sides. The government is propagating the myth that it is the largest anti-poverty and anti-hunger programme ever introduced anywhere in the world. The programme is being heralded as Sonia Gandhi’s dream project, and billed as a miracle solution to the agrarian and food crises.

On the other hand, economic pundits are blaming the Food Security Act for the falling rupee and the economic emergency.

The pundits have it wrong, because they are treating the spin as reality.

The spin is that the scheme is all new, and therefore, by implication, it is a new burden of trillions of rupees and billions of dollars of food subsidies. The reality is that it is deja vu all over again. As Food Minister KV Thomas clarified, all the food security act does is bundle existing schemes for public feeding and presents it as one big new scheme introduced through a new law. According to Thomas, the additional financial burden is only about $2bn.

More money to feed less people

It is not even the largest scheme in terms of coverage. In fact the universal PDS, the Public Distribution System, that we had until 1991 had 100 percent coverage. And it cost us less. The cost of the universal PDS was $4.5bn. It was dismantled by Manmohan Singh under pressure from the World Bank and IMF during the 1991 structural adjustments dubbed the New Economic Reforms, on grounds that a targeted PDS would reduce the subsidy burden. The PDS became the targeted PDS (TPDS), and fewer people were served. However, the cost of the subsidy went up to more than $12bn instead of coming down.

There were two reasons for the increased cost to feed fewer people. One reason was the huge administrative cost of identifying, issuing, and managing the various ration cards – which also became a source for political favours and corruption. Another reason was the trimming of a universal PDS to a TPDS created a huge gap between market prices and ration prices. On the one hand this increased the quantum of subsidies by removing the price control function of a Universal PDS system and the erosion of the price control mechanisms of the essential commodities act. On the other hand, the polarisation between the market prices and the ration shop prices also promoted leakages from the PDS system.

That is why the Right to Food movement and many political parties have been calling for a Universal Public Food System, to reduce both the cost burden and the corruption.

The prime minister keeps repeating that he will continue with “reforms”.

Half of the hungry are farmers who cannot eat what they grow.

Reforms not working

However, both the food crisis and the economic crisis are a result of the so-called reforms. More people are denied their right to food because, on the one hand the livelihoods of small and marginal farmers are being destroyed to carry out the reforms of corporatising the agriculture sector, with corporate seeds and chemical products, and corporate procurement instead of public procurement. The result is debt, hunger and despair.

One out of every four Indians today is a victim of hunger. And half of the hungry are farmers who cannot eat what they grow, either because they are planting cash crops such as cotton; or they’re growing costly crops such as rice, wheat and corn, which they have to sell in order to repay the loans they get to buy seeds, fertilisers, etc.

That is why lowering the cost of production and increasing the livelihood sustainability of small and marginal farmers must be the first step in building food security. However, the Food Security Act is totally silent on production, procurement, and farmers’ livelihood and food rights. This in my view is its biggest failing.

The silence on production makes many people feel that the Food Security Act could increase India’s dependence on food imports. We are already spending millions of dollars in importing and subsidising pulses – grain legumes – and edible oils. Until the Green Revolution, India was the biggest producer and exporter of oilseeds and pulses.The Greed Revolution which is based on rice and wheat production has destroyed our self-sufficiency in pulses and oilseeds, and the globalisation and libralisation of the food trade has made it worse. We need to introdruce tariffs on imports of edible oils and pulses, both to give our farmers a level playing field, and to reduce our trade and budget deficits.

Steps to take for food security

The single most important step in strengthening food security is securing farmers’ livelihoods, by liberating farmers from costly inputs – fertiliser, seed and pesticides for example – and the debt trap. This is what is making agriculture unviable for farmers. Lowering the costs of production through ecological agriculture does not just improve the farmers’ livelihoods and food security, it also improves the health and fertility of the soil, thus strengthening the ecological foundation for food security. Most importantly, it can help in getting rid of the expensive subsidy given for chemical fertilisers and non-renewable corporate seeds. With the falling rupee, this subsidy burden will increase. The economic crisis makes a shift to ecological and organic farming, which do not rely on costly external inputs, an imperative.

The death of 23 children in Bihar due to pesticide poisoning of the Midday Meal Scheme is a wakeup call to the nation to put more care in the food system. A careless food system is threatening the earth and the lives of our people. Money cannot compensate for the harm done by callousness and carelessness and corruption.

We need to cultivate respect for the soil that feeds us, and the hands that feed us. That is why we have started Gardens of Hope in schools and communities. And on October 16th, World Food Day, let us recoginse our Annadatas (food providers) who feed us: the farmers and the women who cook in homes and in communities. They are the Real Food Heroes. On them rests the food security of the nation, today and in the future.

Dr Vandana Shiva is a physicist, ecofeminist, philosopher, activist, and author of more than 20 books and 500 papers. She is the founder of the Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology, and has campaigned for biodiversity, conservation and farmers’ rights – winning the Right Livelihood Award (Alternative Nobel Prize) in 1993.