As India continues to lead the race, being the world’s fastest growing economy, the nation still struggles with socioeconomic problems like the majority of the third world countries.
Issues like poverty, hunger, poor sanitation and lifestyle lurk in the shadows of rapid development that India as a nation has been going through. And amongst all this food security has been one of the basic rights that governments down the years, at both the centre as well as the state, has not been able to implement all across the geography of the nation.
The World Food Summit defines the state of food security to exist when all the citizens at all times have physical and economic access to adequate, safe and healthy food suitable for their dietary needs and preferences for the day to day activities. Food comprises of one of the three fundamental needs of life- oxygen, water and nutrition.
Hence failure to provide food security to a citizen is equivalent to failing a life. Furthermore, in the present times, food scarcity and issues of buffer stocks also have political and social ramifications. Therefore it is important to understand the current scenario of food security in India.
Food Security in India
The UN-India has estimated almost 195 million people in India remain malnourished. The World Food Security Index ranks India at 74 out of 113 major countries of the world. The average protein intake in India is only 20% of the required protein nourishment.
All these deficits have emerged mainly due to unavailability of healthy food either in physical form or the people being too poor to buy the overpriced food. Additionally, climate change and the government’s ineffectiveness to cope with it has caused huge losses to the agricultural sector in the form of natural disasters like drought, pest infestation, wild fires, etc.
Food is a key subject that the administration and the government should focus on to work for the welfare of people. Millions of impoverished individuals and families have remained hungry as they lack access to healthy food. Hunger can be categorised in to two types.
Chronic hunger- which occurs amongst the poor when the person’s diet remains inadequate for a long time; and seasonal hunger- which occurs when a person is unable to get employment for a certain duration. This is common in the agricultural sector where employment is seasonal.
Without a secure and viable access to food, the citizens will not be able to remain active and be productive. This will hamper the economic capability of the nation which will ultimately be a hindrance to the progress and development of India. Therefore reducing hunger alongside poverty is a long-run interest. To achieve this goal, it is important to understand the parameters that govern food security.
Aspects of Food Security
Food security is governed by four major interrelated elements. These parameters are- availability, accessibility, utilisation and stability.
Availability deals with the supply and trade of food. It not only involves the quantity of food supplied, but all the quality and variety of food being made available to the public. In India, distribution of food amongst the poor is maintained by fair price shops (FPS). These shops have been a helpful medium of provision of food to the poor. But to maintain the availability of food for the future, there is a need to improve the quality of sustainable farming systems and natural resources management.
Accessibility as defined in the 1996 World Food Summit organised by the Food and Agricultural Organisation in Rome, Italy- accessibility has two aspects to it. The physical aspect involves the food being actually accessed by the people for consumption, while the economic aspect involves the food can be bought by these individuals.
For this to be viable, both the consumers need to be economically empowered as well as food should be available at reasonable prices. Accessibility can be improved by providing better market access to smallholders of farms and livestock. This allows them to generate more income by selling their cash crops, animal products and other enterprises.
Utilisation is how an individual’s body uses the different kind of nutrients that is provided in the food. This covers a person’s feeding practices, food preparation and daily diet. There is a need to enhance the quality of food and increase diversity of diets to improve the health of the citizens.
Stability involves food security being available at all times. This includes socioeconomic issues like unemployment, inflation, crises, emergencies, etc. as well as natural calamities, wars, etc.
Challenges faced by Food Security
The situation of food insecurity exists for almost a fifth of the Indian population. This comes four types. These are listed as follows:
- Chronic Food Insecurity
- Nutritional Insecurity
- Food Insecurity caused by lack of Food Absorption
- Transitory Food Insecurity.
At macro-levels, the various measures taken by the Indian union and state governments have been successful to an extent as food production and availability has increased four times between 1960 and 2004. Yet the global hunger index ranks India at a lowly 67th position amongst 80 countries. Therefore, the existing policies and schemes need to be reviewed and implemented with reforms.
India’s Efforts to Ensure Food Security
To manage food scarcity in the newly independent India, Public Distribution System (PDS) was initiated. Over the time, PDS evolved into a system of food distribution at affordable prices. PDS helped carry out the three point food management policy of the government-
- Procurement of food grains from the farmers at remunerative prices
- The distribution of food grains to the consumers at affordable prices. Vulnerable sections of society were given attention.
- Maintenance of food buffers for food security and price stability.
But the role of PDS was supplemental in nature and was not meant to be applied at a large scale-long term model. To ensure holistic and long term food security, the central government was responsible through the Food Corporation of India (FCI).
Their primary focus was on the procurement, storage, transportation and the bulk allocation of food grains to the state governments. FCI was set up under the Food Corporation Act 1964, with hopes to achieve the following objectives of the government’s food policy:
- Effective price support operations for protecting the farmers’ interests.
- Distribution of food grains all across the country for PDS.
- Maintaining satisfactory level of stocks of food grains to ensure national level food security.
In addition to the provision of food to PDS from where it would be sent to FPSs for distribution to the poor, the food that the government procured through FCI was also utilised for other food welfare schemes like the mid-day meal scheme in government schools, natural calamity relief, development of women and child programmes like the Integrated Child Development Services, SC/ST hostels, etc.
Throughout the latter half of the 20th century and early years of the new millennium, various schemes like the ration card system, targeted PDS (TPDS) policies for families above poverty line, below poverty line and similar classes were introduced at centre as well as state levels with gradual uplifting of food security conditions.
But major changes started from the enactment of National Food Security Act, 2013. It covered 2/3rd of the rural and urban population and introduced grievance and redressal mechanisms. It also specified food allowances and entitlements for various lower economic classes and gave importance to nutrition of women and children up to 14 years. All the states are now part of NFSA and have made it one of the world’s largest social security programmes.
Under normal circumstances, base stocks are utilised by every organisation to meet the daily consumption. Buffering is a process undertaken to ensure safe levels of reserve stocks to be used during crises or emergencies. Similarly, in food security, buffer stocks are maintained to ensure availability of food to every citizen under stressful and difficult socioeconomic, political as well as natural situations. The most common problem that nations are facing today is inflation. Food items are not spared from this economic phenomenon.
Prices of crops, vegetables and other food products have sharply increased over the last few decades. Buffer stocks are meant to be used as an offset to this. It is one of the most flexible tools to manage short term food deficits. Buffering of food stocks was first introduced in 1969 under the 4th five year plan and the net amount of stock to be maintained was fixed at 5 million tonnes of food grains. But there were constant issues regarding this amount in addition to operational difficulties. Hence buffer norms underwent reforms multiple times, the last being in 2013.
Major Buffer Stock Objectives and Policy
There are three major objectives of Buffer Stock in India-
- Feed targeted public distribution system and other welfare schemes.
- Guarantee food security in case of production shortages during bad agricultural years.
- Stabilise prices for the duration of production shortage through open market sales.
According to the latest buffer norms reform of 2015, the current capacities include 41.1 million tonnes of rice and wheat on July 1 and 30.7 million tonnes on October 1 every year. Earlier, the FCI would buy almost a third of food grains produced in the country.
This would lead to excess of stock that would cause incontrollable monetary and maintenance of inventory. But after the 2015 reforms that allowed the Food Ministry to take independent decision on buffer stocks, they can sell the surplus in the open market without needing cabinet approval. This helps FCI a lot in easing the burden of excessive food stores.
Furthermore, in times of natural disasters, especially droughts, the total food grain production is adversely affected. Buffer stocks are utilised in such times. Also the market for plantation crops like tea, coffee, and cocoa as well as crops like wheat and cotton is volatile thanks to the elasticity of supply and demand. Buffer stock comes handy here as it stabilises the fluctuations by buying excess when there is high supply and low demand and selling stock when there is shortage of supply and demand is high.
Challenges Faced by Buffer Stocks
While in theory, buffer stocks are very lucrative but they do not often work well practically. This is because food items have a date of expiry and perishable products cannot be stored for too long. Hence for long term schemes, buffer stocks become irrelevant. Furthermore, the cost of buying surplus products can make buffer stock schemes cash starved. A part of blame goes to the guaranteed minimum price offered to the farmers. This leads to over-production which causes excess that does not only affects the economy but also the environment.
Buffer stocks also involve utilisation of significant start-up capital. Additionally, there are high cost of administration and logistics. With maximum funds allocated to buy stocks, it becomes troublesome for the FCI and the Food Ministry to adjust the budget to make everything available for efficient establishment and working of buffer stock units. The challenges are further extended to operational limitations. There are four problems that arise to use buffer stocks-
- Buffer stocks may not be enough to change world price.
- Frequent intervention price causes rise in surplus.
- Cost of storage increases while quality of stock degrades.
- Short term remedy as stock is perishable.
Food security is riddled with issues and problems. Buffer stocks being its subset are also exposed to a variety of problems that limit its effectiveness. But it can be summarised that buffer stocks are integral part of food security in a country like India, where agriculture is a dominant sector.
The NFSA has an important objective of stabilising market for food products. Buffer Stock is therefore inseparable from food security as it helps NFSA attain that aim. FCI was formed principally for food procurement and distribution. To make buffer stock practical, the government also needs to focus on having its own production facility.
The health and well-being of each and every citizen of India depends upon what they eat and how much they eat. Food Security ensures that they get an adequate nutritional diet so that they remain productive and contribute to the development of the nation. Therefore, the government should stress on the subject of food security and help develop this sector into a capable and holistic programme that caters to the nutritional needs of all classes of people.