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How India's food security question can be answered

The issue of food security is understood not in terms of how much food is produced, but rather, whether and how those in need gain access to that food, write Bill Pritchard and Anu Rammohan.

india Updated: Oct 15, 2013 22:43 IST

The level of food insecurity in India remains stubbornly high for a country that has experienced more than a decade of strong growth, attained robust levels of agricultural production and is a net exporter of food. So the widening gap between the country’s economic confidence and the hunger that besets so many of its citizenry is a matter of concern.

In the book Feeding India: Livelihoods, entitlements and capabilities, which was released recently, we argue that the cause of food insecurity in the nation is not fundamentally about food per se, but about the extent to which the country’s marginalised population is empowered with the rights, freedoms and capabilities that enable them to lead healthy and nourished lives. Through this approach, the discourse on India’s food insecurity enigma is recast as a problem of livelihoods. The issue of food security is understood not in terms of how much food is produced, but rather, whether and how those in need gain access to that food.

The Food and Agriculture Organization’s definition of food security framed the concept in terms of the ability of a food system to meet the nutritional needs of a population — not its ability to reach a particular production threshold per se. This definition adopts a human-centred framework that focuses attention on individuals’ capabilities to live their lives free from nutritional deprivation. Conceived thus, food insecurity becomes an element of a wider, multi-dimensional, problem. Deprivations of food coalesce with different other forms of deprivation (including material assets, health, education, freedom from fear and discrimination, and conceptions of human dignity) to create multi-dimensional poverty.

To view poverty through the lens of nutritional deprivation brings into focus more livelihoods, and more vulnerabilities, than is the case for any other major indicator. Thus, for example, whereas in 2005 some 41.6% of the Indian population lived in absolute poverty (defined as less than US$1.25 per day), during the same period, over half of all Indian children aged below five years were classified as undernourished, 52% of the population were defined as being food energy deficient, and 52% of Indian women aged 15-49 years suffered from anaemia. Moreover, inequalities in nutritional outcomes appear to be widening for vulnerable groups such as girls and individuals in the lower socio-economic groups.

There is also strong evidence of a decline in per capita calorie consumption in India over the last 20 years. Hence, India has been described as a ‘global enigma’ when it comes to the relationship between economic growth and nutritional outcomes.

Whereas globally, under-nutrition falls by roughly half the rate of GDP growth, in India over the period 1990 to 2005, average annual GDP growth of 4.2% was associated with an average annual rate of decline of under-nutrition of only 0.65%.

The inadequate level of food security has its roots in many causes, and is manifested across many dimensions. To understand the problem requires understanding nutritional outcomes as the product of a complex interplay of economic, social, political, environmental and cultural processes. These interactions serve either to restrict or empower the capabilities of different segments of India’s population to be nourished by safe, nutritionally adequate and culturally appropriate food. Seen this way, the problem of under-nutrition in India represents the inability of an existing ensemble of social, economic and political institutions to deliver individuals with the resources they require to adequately feed themselves.

The food security question for India is: how can the substantive freedoms of the poor and under-nourished be improved so that these segments of the population can better meet their food security needs? There is no single answer to this question, but the mere fact of framing the problem in this way opens up the need for holistic analysis that is fundamentally about the security of livelihoods and provision of an expanded notion of justice for the most vulnerable of its population. We identified six issues which are important in determining the food security outcomes in the future. In each case, these issues are interpreted through the lens of livelihoods, entitlements and capabilities.

First, managing the unsustainable character of agriculture in the original Green Revolution states, and facilitating a transition towards smallholder inclusive cereal production systems elsewhere, would appear to be key challenge for India’s future food security. Second, there is the need to find ways of better incorporating smallholders within the new growth segments of agricultural economy.

Third, we need to consider the gendered basis of food security. The fourth key issue for Indian food security pertains to demographic change and its effects on the labour market. Fifth, over the next few years the government will need to confront and resolve an important set of social safety net policy reforms. Finally, from a livelihoods perspective, the relevance of climate change correlates to its implications for vulnerability, adaptive capacities and resilience among the poor.

Bill Pritchard is with University of Sydney and Anu Rammohan with University of Western Australia
(The article is based on Feeding India: Livelihoods, entitlements and capabilities by B Pritchard; A Rammohan; M Sekher; M Parasuraman and C Choithani)
The views expressed by the authors are personal