Summary – The Hindu – Available, accessible, but not stable

Authors: Shalini Iyengar and Balakrishna Pisupati

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.

Brief history of food security in India

Post-independence yearsThe 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.” The framing of food security in quantitative terms sparked India’s determination to initiate the Green Revolution to boost food production.

1980s and 1990s – The Supreme Court 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.

Also, ‘problem of availability’ of food has been replaced by the ‘problem of access’ of food. The 1980s and 1990s saw an increasing acknowledgement that India’s focus on increasing food supplies was falling short of actually ameliorating hunger. Even as the data showed that India had transformed from a food deficit nation to a food surplus one, seminal research by Amartya Sen and others revealed that hunger and food security were tied to the issue of access — that is, in spite of ample quantities of grain, and a variety of government efforts such as the Public Distribution System, people were dying of starvation because they were unable to physically or financially (or both) reach this food. This view of food security was mirrored at an international level too. 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.”

2001 – In a case brought by the People’s Union for Civil Liberties, the 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.

Problems with the National Food Security Act

  • Lack of a universal right to food – The NFSA does not guarantee a universal right to food. Instead, it limits the right to food to those identified on the basis of certain criteria.
  • Not applicable during disasters – NFSA 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.
  • No fixed targets/Overlooking of fundamentals – 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.
  • The exclusion of courts – The framing of the NFSA as being the final word on government commitments to provide food security to citizens might instead have the result of limiting the courts with respect to how far citizen entitlements can be extended. This fear was borne out in the recent Swaraj Abhiyan cases that address the impact of government failures in tackling consecutive drought years in India. While the court took a strong stance in ordering the executive to implement the provisions of the NFSA, it was reluctant to go beyond the provisions of the NFSA in terms of what it could order the government to give citizens. 
  • Lack of focus on stability – 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.

Way ahead – Food security brings together diverse issues such as inequality, food diversity, indigenous rights and environmental justice. 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. Such a framework would robustly address the challenges facing the country’s food security across all four dimensions and make a coordinated effort to resolve them instead of the piecemeal efforts that have characterised such attempts so far.

Read the full article at The Hindu.