Beyond numbers


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‘In agriculture, nature labours along with man.’

Adam Smith,

The Wealth of Nations, 1885

THE debate on food security in India is caught up in commodity fetishism typical of capitalism. We clamour for its better distribution, exchange and production, regarding food as a commodity, and not as something we eat to varying needs and tastes, gather in forests or commons, cultivate in different soils, and value in specific terms for preserving life, of self and others. It is disconcerting to find the current discourse on a bill for food security revolving around just quantities and prices of wheat, rice and coarse grains!

Whether it is the philosophy of poverty of our Planning Commission or the poverty of philosophy of the right-to-food campaign, the concern for food security has been reduced to a tug of war for bags of cereal and identifying the poor. It is as though we have lost our ability to tell one by his/her physical appearance. While the protagonists squabble about how many households number among the poor, neither stops for a moment to consider what they agree on – the fact of malnutrition among fifty per cent of children – which is a far more complex problem due to a host of factors, among which feature, apart from poverty and individual differences in converting food into nutrition, the lack of micro-nutrients and lentils, edible oils, seasonal vegetables, milk and fruit.

So are we wondering how much alms to how many poor people we should be giving: ‘mutthi bhar daane ko, bhookh mitane ko, as a famous poet described it a generation ago? Or is the concern for food security grounded in an understanding of what might help us to secure our collective ‘well-being’, a term which, I believe, was used in the UN Declaration of Human Rights ?

Recognizing that malnutrition is more than merely a caloric food deficit is the point of departure to appreciate that food security requires a far more variegated and concerted effort than a simple policy paradigm for the distribution of bags of cereals. Even if the National Food Security Bill is amended to the satisfaction of Jean Dreze, who resigned from the NAC due to his differences on the target population for subsidized distribution and quantities of grains per person contemplated by NAC, it would still be a disaster. It would only result in another lease of life for the economic para-digm which addresses the distribution of food after what constitutes food has been reduced to bare bones and then produced in ways that give rise to unemployment, environmental disruption and food crisis for the rural poor.

With food defined so narrowly, enhancement of production for national food security would mean the continuation of agricultural technology and practices that push mono-crop agriculture against the environment. Support for food security conceptualized in this framework will also be a setback to the entire movement, following PILs which laid bare the fact that our PDS is riddled with far too many holes which even the monitoring by the Supreme Court has failed to plug with the help of commissioners over two decades. Even if tempered by the logic of ‘inclusive targeting’, which analysts like Dreze bet on to reduce corruption, in a political scenario of total drift and administrative paralysis, the diversion and pilferage in our PDS is likely to only increase.

Add to this the bad news – expected decline in foodgrain production in the country due to climate change. Godowns may be overflowing today, but with decline in production, speculative hoarding will further inflame the price situation we are facing and which in all likelihood will continue in the near future. Widespread malnutrition will continue to stalk us. Therefore, while common compassion might prompt us to support the bill, it is important to pause and consider if compassion to achieve some blood-letting is what we are after and whether something is indeed better than nothing.


In their monograph, Hunger and Public Action, Sen and Dreze did dwell on the issue of nutrition and capability. They accepted that the ‘subtler issues like nutritional intervention and support cannot be settled without expanding the informational base and they do ultimately have policy relevance.’ Nevertheless, they went on to take the view that ‘there are many urgent and uncontroversially important matters that can – indeed must – receive attention without waiting for the informational base and the diagnostics to be fully refined.’1 

This yen for getting on with it would have been acceptable if it meant they were also going to look at nutritional achievements in terms of the use-value of the range of items of food in a larger-than-cereals basket. While the right to food campaign indeed started voicing this concern recently, that is not what Sen and Dreze meant. They simply brushed it aside as reflecting a pipe-dream in the ‘terrible state of the world we live in.’ They spelt out the reason why from a policy perspective it was preferable to recognize that ‘nutritional achievements may be strongly influenced by the provision of and command over certain crucial non-food inputs such as health care, basic education, clean drinking water, or sanitary facilities.’2 In other words, contemplate a wide range of interventions for social services, but don’t get bogged down trying to figure out all that we want or need to eat and how to produce, exchange or distribute it.


Their concern for public action on an international and national scale for addressing capability deprivation of the poor led them to settle for some grains and non-food inputs like health care and basic education as entitlements which might lead to a much improved world where we might think of ‘subtler’ issues like nutrition. Such reductionism in determining what constitutes food as essential for nutrition makes for serious differences in how we think about different production, exchange and distribution systems for food. Cereals may be the mainstay of our diet, but by themselves they do not address the problem of malnutrition. Decoupling the two and privileging cereals has already led to serious problems in production and distribution systems.

The reinstatement of the concept of demand, in terms of a political economy rather than how it is understood in neoclassical economics (as politically neutral figures of ‘aggregate’ demand) is certainly a laudable contribution; Marxists clung to this Ricardian concept for years. Undeniably, the ability of the poor to gain a voice to demand food, a la Amartya Sen, is also important. However, it is not necessary that entitlements are established in a centralized reckoning with an international or national elite to hear that voice. The clamour of the poor for food exists but is too distant for national elites to hear. With giant leaps in telephony and digital technology, noises could reach them, but will that touch their hearts? While we can admire Sen and Dreze pitching in for the poor, it would be far-fetched to think that their collaborative efforts with the centralized state have created a voice of the poor. What appears to have been achieved is the mobilization of opinion in the public sphere around a food security bill, to appeal as civil society with a right-to-food campaign to pragmatic politicians in the portals of power.


No doubt the passage of the bill would herald a change in the collective conscience, of which changes in law are often a visible symbol. It could mean a mighty step for Indian society at the ideological plane – from regarding charity as religious duty to charity as a right of the poor in a social framework where preservation of life constitutes a basis for that right. It is reminiscent of Queen Anne in 1601 legislating the Poor Laws to take paupers out of the sole care and concern of the parishes and recognizing their right to be cared for by the state. But given the tortuous historical experience of UK thereafter, do we in the 21st century in India need to traverse the same ground? It might even revivify for us in India John Locke’s treatment of the social contract in Two Treatises on Government, where preservation of life is a central concern. But a voice of the poor, something similar to the voice Dalits have found, qua caste, in the electoral domain? We have a long way to go before that happens.

The burden of my argument here is that the poor find their political voice on matters related to food only when the details concerning their access to food around them, not food that falls (or is expected to fall) like manna from heaven, are posed in their local experience and circumstances. In her celebrated book, Jangal ke Dawedar, on Birsa Munda’s struggles, Mahasweta Devi writes that his burning ambition was to feed his mother rice like the dikus (outsiders) instead of coarse grains. The PDS has obfuscated the issues related to their demand for food, diverting their attention from renegotiating a fair share of tenancy rights in cultivated lands and in the commons, to the non-performance of a centralized mai baap.


As is well known, the PDS, as a necessary part of the progressive stance of the government in relation to cultivated lands (recall abolition of zamindari, protection of tenancy, land ceilings, albeit halfhearted), generated a pre-eminence of the state which was very regressive in its incidence on the commons.3 Cultivation of crops and fisheries, animal husbandry, forests along with the usufruct of commons sustain the lives of the poor. Seasonal availability of greens in the commons is a major aspect of this sustenance. Food security must be envisioned in the elaborate terms of the various ecosystems and local agricultural systems.

It is unclear whether adversarial efforts like that of the Maoists, have succeeded in creating a voice of the poor either. Listening to Binayak Sen delivering the N.P. Sen Memorial Lecture in January 2012, one couldn’t help feel that he was poignantly appealing to the middle classes to respond to the feeble voices of the tribals because the limits of their resistance had been reached. He pointed to the prevalence of chronic adult, not just child, malnutrition and said that it should be measured using a person’s body mass index and not simply by the calories required by him/her daily. He went on to say, ‘There is an urgent need to provide the poor with access to common property resources including land, water and the forests, in order to ensure that they are able to survive.’


The organic relationship between cultivation, animal husbandry and forestry was emphasized by the Royal Commission on Agriculture which reported in 1927. In an obscure pamphlet titled The Food Supply,4 Radhakamal Mukerjee reckoned that in 1935, with the Second World War looming large, there was no home grown food for 48 out of 377 million Indians. In his inimitable style, he noted that forests should cover 20 per cent of the land area in the interests of agriculture and irrigation. Only in Assam, Central Provinces and Madras, where forests covered more than 20 per cent of the land area were there possibilities of extending cultivation to forest lands. Everywhere else, only the culturable wastes offered some possibilities, but first the proportion of the waste that needed to be left fallow for soil replenishment needed to be determined.

Noting the problem of soil erosion as the greatest menace to Indian agriculture, he advocated a host of land development and watershed related works and went on to consider planned large-scale interprovincial migration to canal areas, management of grass lands, the trend of relative increase of the less nutritive cereals and the need to forefront sciences of nutrition and ecology to lead agricultural development. It is a treat even today to read his lucid war plan for food security with his nose close to the nutritive value of different items of food and production possibilities given soil and water variability conditions in the different agricultural systems.

The dismemberment of an organic understanding of agriculture in India began with the National Commission on Agriculture (1976), when we were already some way into the green revolution, which reached a plateau by the 1980s. The mindset and technologies of the green revolution have been critiqued both from the point of view of consumption and production. Hidden hunger or micronutrient malnutrition (deficiency of vitamin A, iron, zinc and folic acid etc.) became more conspicuous in many countries since the introduction of the green revolution. The doubling of the capital-output ratio from two to four in less than a couple of decades is already punishing farmers, besides the havoc created by declining arable land and water tables along with soil degradation.


The limits to this growth path in agriculture are by now well-recognized. The delivery systems for both food and fertilizer subsidies to support this paradigm for agriculture are hopelessly corrupt. Corruption in delivering subsidized food has been widely discussed. In his budget speech 2012, the finance minister pledged allocations for food security without any detailed estimates or clarity about modalities for delivery.5 In deference to the CAG’s latest report on diversion of subsidized fertilizers for non-agricultural uses, he declared: ‘To ensure greater efficiency, cost effectiveness and better delivery for both kerosene and fertilizers, the government will move towards direct transfer of cash subsidy to people living below the poverty line in a phased manner.’ There is some talk in the air of cash subsidy for food as well, but that is kind-of hush-hush. Some say the government of the day needs to find its voice too!

While the green revolution was a great accomplishment for the immediate purpose of preventing mass famine, M.S. Swaminathan points out that it was never intended to be a long-term solution.6 Maintaining diversity is a major concern for specialists in food and agriculture who appeal for the ‘orphan crops’ of the drylands to be saved. A conference organized by International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) concluded that favouring fewer crops by subsidizing their price for the poor could lead to dietary imbalances. Handing out vouchers to allow the poor to buy diverse foods is probably a better option than relying on products of two or three starchy crops. The vouchers must provide two kilograms of food per person per day, which would include one kilogram of grain, edible oils, beans, and nuts, 0.5 kg of fruit and vegetables, and nearly 0.5 kg of meat, milk, fish or eggs.


The high and unpredictable variability of growing crops in the drylands have been studied by scientists at ICRISAT who claim that certain interventions could counter most of the yield losses that would otherwise occur due to climate change upto 2050.7 These include building ridges to harvest rainwater, covering the soil with mulch to reduce evaporation from the soil at high temperatures, using small fertilizer applications to improve yields, using crop varieties bred with adaptation to hotter growing cycles, and so on – all of which needs investment.

Apart from the money required for research on adaptive changes, the rest echoes what we’ve known and what Mukerjee planned for WW II. What appears to be missing in our present endeavours is the elaborate and comprehensive consideration of policy issues. A recent glaring example in this context is the manner in which the National Mission for Sustainable Agriculture (NMSA) has been conceived. The Action Plan for NMSA does not even take into account the coastal livelihoods that are threatened given the estimates of sea level rise, which does not augur well for about 200 million people dependent on coastal livelihoods. Again, if one looks at the Economic Survey for 2012, the word ‘watershed’ appears only once, simply to mention the existence of a National Watershed Development Project for Rainfed Areas! Projects to develop watersheds with local participation are essential to regulate a more enabling regime of leasing-in of land since the average farm size in the country has declined over the years.

In the evolution of policy and programmes in India since independence to address the problems of the poor in India, the need to distinguish between the landless who require wage employment and the small-and-marginal farmers who need a package of credit and technologies, took very long to be acknowledged. It was as late as the mid-1990s before we stopped lumping them together and designing somewhat better targeting of anti-poverty programmes.


This led to conceiving MGNREGA for wage employment on the lines of the Employment Guarantee Scheme (EGS) in Maharashtra, with significant differences like payment of minimum wages, locating work sites not away from but in the village, and, above all, guaranteeing work on demand. Campaigns by civil society enhancing its political visibility helped to roll out the programme with funds pledged to undertake earthworks for land development and water conservation, village by village. The immense possibilities in this programme for nutritionists and ecologists to participate and address the problem of poverty need to be explored. Involving our nutritionists and agronomists in helping gram sabhas to develop a shelf of projects to be undertaken under MGNREGA seems to be a good way forward. The prevailing lack of attention to framing labour budgets with proper care and participation as envisaged in MGNREGA may prove to be immensely costly, both in terms of funds as well as food security created in the long run.


It goes without saying that both systems for production of various items of food and an eye to entitlements must go hand in hand for food security to be established. Any one of them driving the other is likely to lead to life threatening imbalances. For instance, livelihoods would be lost in catastrophic proportions if we were to rely on ‘food’ imports to meet entitlements. Therefore, India does not appear to have any option other than to work towards introducing better technologies to improve productivity in agriculture.

The extant regime of minimum support prices for foodgrains cum public distribution has clearly outlived its utility and needs to be gradually phased out in favour of greater market freedom for trade in agricultural commodities. The state and markets can work in tandem in this area. The funds thus released from the budget should be moved to supporting greener technologies for poor farmer households, together with watershed based land development and water harvesting under MGNREGA. Handing out coupons to the poor on a socially inclusive basis to allow for year to year drop-ins as well, may be a better way to attend to entitlements, not because it would be foolproof of leakages, but because it would allow the poor choices between different items of food.



1. See Amartya Sen and Jean Dreze, Hunger and Public Action, Oxford University Press, 1999, pp. 42-44.

2. Ibid.

3. Chattrapati Singh, Common Poverty and Common Property. Indian Law Institute, Oxford University Press, 1984.

4. Radhakamal Mukerjee, The Food Supply. Oxford pamphlets on Indian Affairs, Indian Branch of OUP, 1942.

5. Amitabh Mukhopadhyay, Mail Today,

6. See William Dar, Feeding the Forgotten Poor. Orient Blackswan, 2012, p. 32.

7. Ibid., p. 83.