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The Right to food is a well-established principle of international human rights law. It has evolved to include an obligation for state parties to respect, protect, and fulfil their citizens’ right to food security.
Our current understanding of food security includes the four dimensions of access, availability, utilisation and stability.
As a state party to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, India has the obligation to ensure the right to be free from hunger and the right to adequate food.
Emergence of Food Security over the time of Independence:
Broadly speaking, attitudes towards food security in India can be divided into two generations subsequent to Independence. While the demarcation is far from exact, it indicates how the importance given to different elements of food security altered over time.
The years post-Independence were turbulent for India. Memories of the Bengal famine remained fresh and fears of a food shortage were rampant. Hunger was thought to be a function of inadequate food production.
In 1974, the World Food Conference defined food security primarily in terms of production — as the “availability at all times of adequate world food supplies.”
It is arguable that the framing of food security in quantitative terms sparked India’s determination to initiate the Green Revolution to boost food production. While the programme achieved dramatic increases in rice and wheat production in some parts of the country, its devastating environmental impact has also rightly been critiqued.
Two occurrences over the 1980s and 1990s set the stage for what we understand as food security in India today. The first was when the Supreme Court dramatically expanded the ambit of rights that citizens could claim against the state.
While no explicit ‘right to food’ could be made out, there was an increased mention of food as being among a cluster of basic rights integral to human dignity. The second was a shift of the frame from the problem of availability to the problem of access.
In 1996, the World Food Summit stated that food security was achieved “when all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food.”
In 2001, Supreme Court evolved a right to food and read it into the right to life provisions of the Constitution. Following that, a host of court orders and directions ultimately resulted in the 2013 National Food Security Act (NFSA), which has been lauded for guaranteeing a quantitative “right to food” to all Indians.
However, the NFSA suffers from serious lacunae in its drafting, which severely undermine its stated objective of giving legal form to the right to food in India.
As the court has pointed out, Article 256, which casts a responsibility on the States and the Union to ensure compliance with laws made by Parliament, also provides the remedy, as it can be invoked by the Centre to set things right. Unfortunately, the NFSA, which is vital for social security through the Public Distribution System and child welfare schemes, has suffered due to a lack of political will.
Assessing the Food Security Act:
The NFSA surprisingly does not guarantee a universal right to food. It then goes on to further restrict the right to 75% rural and 50% urban of the Indian population. It also specifies that a claim under the Act would not be available in times of “war, flood, drought, fire, cyclone or earthquake”.
Given that a right to food becomes most valuable in exactly these circumstances, it is questionable whether the Act is effective in guaranteeing the right that it is meant to.
Present Concern in NFSA:
Another problematic aspect of the NFSA is its embrace of certain objectives that are to be “progressively realised”. These provisions include agrarian reforms, public health and sanitation, and decentralised procurement, but they make no mention of the need to reconsider fundamental assumptions about our agricultural systems and look at food security in a more comprehensive manner.
It is arguable that the rubric of “progressive realisation” actually retards food security reform in the country. This is because some of the elements mentioned under this head are already incorporated in laws and policies at the State and national levels.
Demarcating them as obligations to be realised “progressively” will lead to counter-intuitive results where the States will simply refrain from doing any more than what the NFSA explicitly requires them to do.
Linking food security and nutrition security:
The two concepts are interlinked, but nutrition security has a much wider connotation than food security. It encompasses a biological approach, that is, adequate and safe intake of protein, energy, vitamin and minerals along with proper health and social environment.
The nutritional aspect of the quantity of grain to be distributed to each person under the Public Distribution System (PDS) is somewhat less researched, though the Act has aimed at attaining this goal.
Poor quality of food lacking essential micronutrients and no diet diversity, and unhygienic conditions of storage may come in the way. There are other promising features under the Act, such as:
Free daily meals for children and maternity benefits, including cash for pregnant women, which can combat rampant undernutrition (calorie deficiency) and malnutrition (protein deficiency) across the country.
These steps may perhaps complement the existing nutritional programmes such as mid-day meals and Integrated Child Development Services.
Finally, while the NFSA addresses issues of access, availability and, even tangentially, utilisation, it is largely silent on the issue of stability of food supplies — a startling omission given India’s vulnerability to climate change impacts, to name one impending threat to food security.
Thus there is a need to frame a “third generation” food security law and recognise and mainstream issues including increasing natural disasters and climate adaptation.
Modernisation of the PDS, with the use of information technology, could incorporate such dynamic features to the supply of subsidised food to those who need it, and eliminate deficiencies and fraud.
The States must gear up to work on adequate logistics for digitisation of ration cards, computerisation of offtake and delivery of foodgrains, and effective monitoring of fair price shops, possibly through involvement of communities or other feasible ways. This will bring in greater transparency in the system and would go a long way towards raising the nutritional status of Indians.
Such a framework would robustly address the challenges facing the country’s food security across all four dimensions- access, availability, utilisation and stability and make a coordinated effort to resolve them instead of the piecemeal efforts that have characterised such attempts so far.
Food security brings together diverse issues such as inequality, food diversity, indigenous rights and environmental justice.
Given the current crises in India, it is time we prepare a third generation right to food legislation that recognises that a climate-as-usual scenario no longer exists. Such a legislation would ideally be rooted in the principle of a right to food security in its true spirit.