A Grim Situation - Hunger Eradicating Humans
According to a report by UNICEF, every second child in India is malnourished. Furthermore, nearly two million children under the age of five, die every year from curable diseases. Among those that survive, half are stunted due to nutritional deficiency. The pandemic has ravaged the country to a greater extent. It has contributed towards making the poor more vulnerable to a deeper abyss of hunger. There is a critical need for policy intervention at the highest possible level and overhaul the existing policies as per the changed circumstances in order to make India hunger-free. This article delves into the kernel of the right to food and the current state of hunger in the country. It also seeks to reflect the current plight of the vulnerable population and addresses the concerns to ameliorate the situation.
Keywords: Right to Food, Food Security, Article 21
The recent report - Global Hunger Index (GHI) 2021 - published by the Irish-based Concern Worldwide and a German Organization Welthungerhilfe manifests the dire strait India lies in terms of hunger. The report, which scores countries out of 100, is based on four indicators: Undernourishment, Child Stunting (children under the age of five who have low height for their age- chronic undernutrition), Child Wasting (children under the age of five who have low weight for their height- acute undernutrition) and lastly Child Mortality (the mortality rate of children under the age of five). India has slipped by 7 ranks to 101st this year. The level of hunger in India has been termed as “alarming” as India’s GHI score has kept on declining from 38.8 in 2000 to the range of 28.8 – 27.5 between 2012 and 2021. Additionally, it has performed worst in the case of Child Wasting which is related to maternal health. India has a history of following the culture of child marriage despite various laws and statutes. Such early marriages lead to pregnancy in adolescents who are too young and undernourished themselves. This is compounded after the child’s birth during breastfeeding. Lack of access to contraception at an age when the mother is too young, resulting in childbirth, is another reason. Poor sanitation, leading to diarrhea, and lack of proper healthcare services also results in child wasting. Keeping in mind this dreadful scenario, the goal of malnutrition-free India by 2022 and simultaneously fulfilling SDG 2 (Eliminating Hunger) by 2030 is a far cry.
ROOTS OF FOOD SECURITY AND RIGHT TO FOOD
The concept of food security emanated from the roots of the Green Revolution. India had started recording a large population growth which was antithetical to the per capita availability of food grains. The UN Committee on World Food Security defines food security as “all people, at all times, having physical, social, and economic access to sufficient, safe, and nutritious food that meets their food preferences and dietary needs for an active and healthy life.” Food security is in line with Article 21 of the Constitution of India which guarantees every person the right to life. Article 21 incorporates in itself the Right to Food as a fundamental right which has been time and again reiterated by the Supreme Court. As a result of a severe drought in Rajasthan for three consecutive years, the state recorded many deaths due to lack of access to food. During this stint, India’s warehouses were brimming with an excess stock of food grains of million tonnes. This led to the filing of a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) known as the PUCL v. Union of India, Writ Petition 196 of 2001, which came to be known as the ‘Right to Food’ case. The Supreme Court (hereinafter referred to as the “SC”) pronounced that the Right to Food is justiciable and enforceable. This meant that anything and everything violating such a right would violate Article 21 of the Indian Constitution i.e., the Right to Life. This judgment forced the government to increase its spending in the budget over various food schemes and programs. It also led to the enactment of the National Food Security Act, 2013 to provide subsidized food grains to Indian citizens. This Act is supplanted by the Public
Distribution System (PDS). The PUCL case also gave the much-needed thrust to India’s largest school feeding program- Mid-Day Meal Scheme- by revising it twice to expand its scope in 2004 and 2007 respectively. In another case of Chameli Singh v. State of Uttar Pradesh, the SC had held that if the land of the landowner is acquired by the state in accordance with the procedure established by law, the right to livelihood, guaranteed under Article 21 of the Indian Constitution, of the landowner is not violated. But at the same time, it also held that the Right to Live in society includes the right to food, water, shelter, and various other facilities that bolster the growth of an individual spiritually, mentally, emotionally, and physically.
In addition to this, Article 47 of the Indian Constitution states that it is the duty of the State to raise the level of nutrition and the standard of living and to improve public health. The SC judgment is also in consonance with Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights i.e., “Right to Adequate Standard of Living” and Article 11(1) of the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights.
THE DIRE STRAITS
India is lacking behind in ensuring this inalienable right to persons due to many reasons. Despite being self-sufficient in terms of staple food crops- Rice and Wheat, India has not succeeded in providing access to food to all its citizens. This has led to undernutrition. As per the report by Food and Agricultural Organisation, nearly 40% of the food produced in India is wasted every year due to inefficient supply chains and systems. India suffers from insufficient proper storage facilities, lack of inventories, and inefficiency on the part of the government further leads to wastage of food grains. These issues urged the government to bring about the Essential Commodities (Amendment) Act, 2020 which seeks the elimination of limits on the storage of food stocks by private players. This will facilitate investments in the cold storage facilities by private players leading to efficient food supply chains and less food wastage. The dire state of affairs in India is reflected by the figure that more than 19 crore people in India sleep hungry
every day (as per the National Health Survey of India). In addition to this, around 3000 children die every year due to hunger.
The income gap between communities has been augmenting with prices of food grains on a continuous rise. The vagaries of food prices and unemployment have formed dark clouds over the life and livelihood of the lower-income groups of the society. Farm protests have brought to light the livelihood concerns at the fore. The Farmer’s Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act, 2020 allows the farmers to sell their produce outside the physical premises of markets that are under the Agricultural Produce Market Committee (APMCs) but what concerns the farmers is that such selling would lead to less buying by the government eventually leading to the elimination of Minimum Support Price (MSP). This would leave the farmers in a lurch due to the lack of any assured price for their produce. The Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement of Price Assurance and Farm Services Act, 2020 seeks to provide contract farming which is also a point of contention as this would leave the farmers prone to exploitation by the corporate players. The inability of farmers to comprehend and frame the terms of the contract along with the dominating position of the private players does more harm than good. In case of frustration of contract, the litigation costs borne by the farmers would aggravate the situation. The agrarian distress, along with three C’s- Conflict, COVID, and Climate Change (as stated in GHI Report), has further aggravated the situation in India. Thus, the informal economy has been deprived of the basic necessities of life. As per the State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World (SOFI) report, the prevalence of moderate to severe food insecurity in India rose by about 6.8 percentage points in 2018-20. During this period, India had an unprecedented 100 million tonnes of food grains in its warehouses yet it failed to ensure food security. At this critical juncture, the Indian Government has denied the veracity of the GHI Report and termed it as having “methodological issues” and “devoid of ground reality and facts”. Instead of slamming the report, universalizing the Public Distribution System (PDS) is imperative.
THE DEEP CHASMS – HOW CAN IT BE FILLED?
Since the pandemic, India has not conducted any official assessment of food security or food consumption survey in the country. Moreover, it does not accept the estimates based on an annual worldwide survey, Gallup World Poll, too. The SOFI report, which is based on two indicators- Prevalence of Undernourishment (PoU) and Prevalence of Moderate and Severe Food Security (PMSFI), merely captures average per-capita food supply and are based on data collected through surveys. Hence, it fails to take into account the recent disruptions such as that of the pandemic. Additionally, data from consumption surveys are available once in a few years. Hence, a regular assessment of food security needs to be formulated which can be conducted every year.
Secondly, the “One Nation, One Ration Card” scheme must be operationalized in all the States and the UTs. The National Food Security Act, 2013 covers 50% of the urban population and 75% of the rural population empowering the Central Government to provide 5kg of food grains every month at subsidized prices. As per the 2011 census, 67% of the Indians are covered yet 45% of the Indian population falls out of this food haven. This shows the dire need for universalization of the public distribution system.
Thirdly, the Aadhar-related complexities and authentication process are needed to be urgently addressed. This is because, in a situation where the family is split across two or more cities and one member of the family purchases half the amount of food grains from a Fair Price Shop, leaving behind the other half amount for the other members to withdraw (from another Fair Price Shop in their city); in the latter case the dealer does not allow such purchase of food grains. This calls for abolishing the traditional way of issuing only one ration card to the whole family and hence, multiple ration cards should be issued. This stumbling block can also be moved aside by initiating Ration Portability i.e., a beneficiary registered in Public Distribution System can access rations from anywhere within the State.
Fourthly, concerning the authentication problem in Aadhar registration, there are Aadhar-related electronic point-of-sale (e-POS) machines that scan the fingerprint of the beneficiary and electronically verify them through a database. After such verification, the food grains are handed over to the beneficiary. But the catch is- migrant workers and labours tend to possess worn-out fingerprints which are difficult to verify and hence result in process failure. There are Internet-based issues as well. The solution to such a problem is issuing one-time usable food tokens or coupons which can be used at Fair Price Shops (FPS) to buy food grains. This will eliminate not only authentication issues but also portability issues as well.
The fifth issue is the inclusion of wealthy populations and the exclusion of genuine poor populations. As per a report by PRS, the Public Distribution System suffers an exclusion of nearly 61% of the eligible population from the BPL list and inclusion of 25% of the non-eligible population instead. This issue demands an urgent need for the identification of eligible households by higher authorities which should be devoid of bias and corruption.
Finally, to address the problems hindering schemes and programs- Community kitchens, at prominent places, must be set up by the government so that no person sleeps hungry due to hunger. During the pandemic, migrant labourers bore the brunt due to the lack of these. The Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, 2005 (MGNREGA) must be strengthened. Numerous issues have stagnated this law – insufficient budget allocation, low and late wage payments. This is further exacerbated by poor infrastructure at workplaces as well as banks in rural areas. This creates hassle and delays in timely wage payments, issues in updating passbooks (in case of banks), and also, if the bank is far away, frequent “unnecessary” transport expenditure needs to be borne by the worker. Thus, increasing budget allocation and wages is the need of the hour which, in turn, would aid workers in supporting themselves to afford basic necessities like food. Additionally, the POSHAN Abhiyan must focus on the utilization of funds available in its corpus as, due to bureaucratic levels, the funds have remained underutilized. The parliamentary panel had asked the Ministry of Women and Child Development to submit an action plan as the ministry had started saving funds for “demand for Grants”. In 2019-20, Rs. 1500 crore were saved in Poshan Abhiyan Scheme. Therefore, it is important to utilize the corpus of funds available to ensure better and easy access to food and nutrition for children.
The Right to Food is an integral part of life which is also corroborated by the Indian concept of "Dharma" (sharing food) and “Atharveda” (equal rights in articles of food and water). It is not only an inherent part of the Constitution but also one of the most fundamental human rights. The policymakers need to take into account the prevailing predicament and frame policies accordingly. The prime task for the officials is to strengthen the prevailing food schemes, programs, subsidies, and other benefits so that the needy population can extract the best out of it. This will not only uplift the poor section of the society but also raise the standard of the country in the global world in terms of food security. The government should also keep a track of the situation and bring in policies to check the selling of valuable assets as a quid pro quo for food. The resources to keep down hunger and prevent food insecurity are already available in the country. Proper planning and its implementation are needed urgently. It is a never-ending loop- the progress, standard of living, access to nutrition - that builds the country’s reputation at the global level. Therefore, until India ensures that no person goes to bed hungry, India must keep working to build a new India.
This piece has been authored by Intisar Aslam.
Intisar Aslam is a first-year law student at the National University of Study and Research in Law, Ranchi and is pursuing BA LLB (Hons.).
Image source: https://indiacurrents.com/hunger-surges-during-covid-crisis/