India has earned the discomfiting distinction of being home to the highest number of hungry people among 129 countries monitored by the Food and Agriculture Organization. This was revealed in the State of Food Insecurity in the World 2015 report. Though India has improved its own record here by reducing the figure from 210 million in 1990-92 to 194 million now, it has fallen behind China in this regard. The figures show 15% of India’s population is undernourished, despite all the governmental action over decades.
In the definition of the organisation ‘undernourishment means that a person is not able to acquire enough food to meet the daily minimum dietary energy requirements, over a period of one year’. And when undernourishment becomes chronic, it becomes synonymous with hunger. In India’s case, it would be appropriate to stick to the original definition of the poverty line: Consuming 2,400 calories a day in rural areas and 2,100 calories a day in urban areas may serve as the benchmark for undernourishment. The country has achieved a lot in terms of food production: The output of foodgrain increased from 129.6 million tonnes in 1980-81 to more than 250 million tonnes now, which has been ahead of the rate of increase in population during this period. Still undernourishment was a problem and hence the food security law was passed. The law decrees that each family under the Antodaya Anna Yojana will receive 35 kg of foodgrain per month, covering 75% of the rural population and 50% of the urban population. But howsoever well-intentioned, this law was in a way an acknowledgement that a lot was left to be done and something radical was required.
Food insecurity has an administrative aspect, which is the most important. Distribution under the targeted public distribution system (PDS) hinges on the central issue price. There is a cost involved in distribution, which accounts for the inefficiencies in the system and the resultant leakages. This also partly accounts for the fact that there are large stocks of foodgrain lying in the open air, waiting to be eaten by rodents. A recent study by the National Council of Applied Economic Research shows ‘small offtake, diversions and exclusion errors’ by the Food Corporation of India can threaten the food security of the entire country. There are two options here for the central and state governments: Reform the PDS or shift to cash transfers and constantly monitor buffer stocks.