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Food insecurity skyrocketing in India, say experts and rights activists

With crores of people still unable to access the government’s ration scheme, activists say the government must immediately conduct the census and widen the net for its coverage under the National Food Security Act.

By Bhaswati Sengupta
New Update

publive-image Photo courtesy: Right to Food Campaign

“In the survey by the Right to Food Campaign, when we asked people when was the last time they purchased oil, many said that they couldn’t even afford oil. They said they were preparing their masalas in water. When we asked people how much dal they consumed and which dal was their favourite, one woman told me that it was just a handful of dal and the rest was water. We really feel that the problem of hunger is skyrocketing in our country, and this is one issue that needs immediate redressal,” says Amrita Johri, a member of the Right to Food Campaign. 

Amrita Johri, a member of the Right to Food Campaign, speaks to The Probe on food insecurity in India. 

In a survey conducted by the Right to Food Campaign, it was found that food insecurity in India has risen post-Covid-19, and the marginalised sections were increasingly facing hunger. “We have the Consumer Expenditure Survey, which shows how much our households consume. Unfortunately, in the latest round of 2017-18, the government did not publish it, saying there were some methodological issues. Now one would expect the government to sort the issues, revise and redo the survey and publish it again. But the government has still not done it. The Right to Food Campaign undertook the hunger survey, and we did two rounds. It has shown that 41 per cent of the families we interviewed faced both quantity and quality related problems, and they seemed much worse off than they were during the pre-Covid times,” adds Johri.

Dr Vandana Prasad, public health expert and Founder Member of Jan Swasthya Abhiyan, says the government’s various outreach schemes are not percolating to those deserving as the poor in the country still don’t have complete ration coverage.

publive-image Food being distributed to children in India | Photo courtesy: Special arrangement

“Many ration cards have not been made because we are still going by the population figures of the 2011 census. There are many loopholes in the implementation of the ration card scheme. Many people are not getting food. There are delays. There is a problem with the quality of food. There are problems related to diversity. For example, wheat and rice are being given to the people, but we have been demanding that at least millet and oil be added to the basket. We have also found that there are issues with the biometric system. Sometimes it doesn’t work. The supply of ration gets delayed at times, and to top it all, there are also corruption-related issues,” notes Prasad.

In the recent Global Hunger Index 2022 survey, India ranked 107 out of the 121 countries surveyed. With a score of 29.1, India has a level of hunger that is serious. Many activists like Amrita Johri claim that one of the primary reasons for this is that the food coverage under the National Food Security Act has not increased to meet the demands of the people below the poverty line.  

“The ration schemes operate under the National Food Security Act. Under that, it is mentioned that up to 75 per cent of people in rural areas and up to 50 per cent of people in urban areas are entitled to get a ration. Based on the 2011 census, approximately 67 per cent of eligible people were issued ration cards, about 80 crore people. But since 2011, the population has gone up and the government has not done a census on the pretext of Covid-19. If the 2021 census had happened, we would have found that the number of people who got ration cards would have increased. But it is unfortunate that in a Supreme Court hearing, the government has given an affidavit stating that the census is indefinitely delayed and that even the date of notifying the census cannot be disclosed. But the Supreme Court told the government that you cannot deny people ration because you are not conducting the census. The court asked the government why it was not using the population estimates and projections to increase food coverage. Why has the government not done this yet?” asks Johri.

publive-image Photo courtesy: Special arrangement

India is one of the largest producers of many critical staples worldwide, yet many families are deprived of food and nutrition. India’s Public Distribution System (PDS) and Mid Day Meal schemes are among the largest food programmes done by any country in the world, but these schemes suffer from poor management.

“Inadequate policy response of the government is basically the crux of the issue. The Supreme Court had recently ordered the central government to enhance the food security net within the country based on revising the National Food Security Act (NFSA) list since the census has not been carried out for the last ten years. Even that revision has not happened so far. Because of this, a large population of more than ten crore people have been left out of food security coverage only because they do not have a ration card and they can’t avail of the government scheme even when they rightfully deserve it,” says Raj Shekhar Singh, Member of the Right to Food Campaign.

“The extent of the problem can be determined by the fact that during the pandemic, the Delhi government started a portal in which they said people can come and apply for ration cards. More than 70 lakh people came forward to get ration cards in Delhi alone. So, one can imagine the status of food insecurity in the country and the number of people who are not having any ration cards or food security in terms of getting any help from the government. The Supreme Court even suggested to the government that it can try to adopt various methods to support states by way of allocating them funds so that they can try to cover the food insecure population, but so far even this has not been done,” retorts Singh.

Anuradha Talwar, an activist with the Paschim Banga Khet Mazdoor Samiti, says India has always been a food surplus country, but the poor management of food stocks is creating massive shortages. “There is no food shortage in India. In fact, we have huge stocks, which are now depleting, because this year’s harvest has been terrible. This is a consistent problem where we have so much stock of food, but people are still hungry. There are several other issues, like unemployment, compounding the hunger problem. The main issue is also the quantity and quality of food. The government is giving people the bare minimum when it comes to everyday ration. At the most, people can have two rotis a day or very little rice. What about the other supplements? They are only giving rice and wheat. These are basically carbohydrates. What about the other nutritional needs of the body?”

Under the Sustainable Development Goals, the United Nations (UN) has set a global goal to end hunger by 2030. “Leave no one behind” is the central, transformative promise of the 2030 agenda, but India has a long way to go before it covers all its deserving communities under its food coverage programme. The central government schemes like the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Yojana (PM-GKAY) still beg for effective implementation.

Kavita Srivastava, National Secretary of the People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL), says food insecurity will rise till the time we don’t pay attention to cover the last person standing. “In Rajasthan, 79 lakh people are beneficiaries of government food schemes, but it needs to be a crore or so. In the Mid Day Meal scheme, children need essential nutrients. They need eggs, but then religion was brought into this also. Vegetarianism and other ideologies crept in. We have excess food stocks but cannot distribute it to the right people. Till we improve our Public Distribution System, millions will continue to sleep hungry every day in India.”