Food Insecurity in India: A Challenge to be Reckoned with

Reading time: 8-10 minutes.

The war against hunger is truly mankind’s war of liberation.

~John F. Kennedy

‘At the stroke of the midnight hour’ on August 15, 1947 when India transitioned from a British Colony to a sui juris nation, its society was inundated with the scads of scourges of which the one of food insecurity was a pivotal integrant. In the wake of the Bengal Famine of 1943, and the World War II in 1945, 30% of the population of undivided India was estimated, by the Famine Inquiry Commission, to remain hungry and 3.5 million lives were believed to have succumbed to hunger. The turn of the century and the passing of almost two of its decades have not been enough of time to obviate this issue and thence, the challenge of food insecurity remains in India. According to the latest edition of the State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World (SOFI) Report, there were 48.86 crore food insecure people in India, in 2017-19 accounting for 31.6% of the total Indian population.

Meaning and the Contributory Factors

In the simplest of its meanings, food insecurity is, prima facie, perceived as the unavailability of food. Consequently, the famines are believed to be and legitimately so, the biggest contributing factor to the scourge of food insecurity. Besides, on the assumption of the same interpretation of the term, a slew of other factors were also held responsible for the scantiness of food during the protracted period of colonialism in India. These include the imperial policies and arrangements like that of Permanent Settlement of 1793, under which the British zeroed in on the maximum extraction of taxes from land and paid zero heed to its productivity culminating into the plummet of agricultural yield. Moreover, the indigenous textile industry was clamped down by the British which coerced artisans into switching their occupation to agriculture putting more pressure on land and severely impinging on the quantum of yield.

However, it is pertinent to mention that the term ‘food insecurity’ in a more technical sense does not imply the ‘dearth of food’, but it means the ‘dearth of access to food’. Renowned economist and Author, Amartya Sen, in his book Poverty and Famines says that “Starvation is the characteristic of some people not having enough food to eat. It is not the characteristic of there being not enough food to eat.” And The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations also defines ‘food insecurity’ in sync with this understanding as “a situation that exists when people lack secure access to sufficient amounts of safe and nutritious food for normal growth and development and an active and healthy life.” By its definition of food insecurity, FAO appends another aspect to the term i.e. the adequacy or sufficiency of food.

An altogether different set of factors is held responsible for food insecurity when the term is fathomed in this complex sense. This incorporates the population growth owing to which the ideal proportionality of available food, to the number of mouths to be fed, gets disturbed, making the food inaccessible to some people. The other factors are inflation, unemployment and poverty which often complement one another, denying the penurious and unemployed people access to the food items when their prices are high. Another factor contributing significantly to food insecurity is the unequal or unbalanced distribution of income or resources which makes the food inaccessible to a certain stratum of society possessing the least of resources.

And considering the latest edition of SOFI Report, which estimates 3.8% rise in number of food insecure people from 42.65 crore in 2014-16 to 48.86 crore in 2017-19, depicts that a peculiar set of factors including the ‘overall economic distress, deepening agrarian crisis, falling investment across sectors and shrinking employment opportunities’ were at play leading to such unfortunate estimates.

Government Measures

Soon after Independence, the central leadership of India was hell-bent on combatting this problem, which was also one of the biggest stumbling blocks to the nation’s progress. This is testified by Pandit Jawahar Lal Nehru’s statement, “The Indian peasant is our main focus and it is on his progress that India’s progress depends.” In pursuance to this objective, a number of commissions were set up from 1947-1950 to analyse the scarcity of food and chalk out a food policy for India. The pioneer of these commissions was Foodgrains Policy Commission, set up under the chairmanship of Sir Purshottam Das Thakur Das in 1947. Then in 1951, was launched the policy of Five Years Plan (FYP), with the first FYP prioritizing Agriculture and putting everything else on the back burner for the time being. The first FYP was able to yield some calculated and desirable results giving the nation its first push towards the achievement of self-sufficiency. The food grain production surged from 51 million tonnes in 1951-52 to 69 million tonnes in 1956-57.

The next landmark policy decision of the government to revolutionize Agriculture was that of introducing the Green Revolution. Initiated in 1965 in a few areas of Northern India, particularly in Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh, this policy was a huge success, and substantially increased the production of wheat and rice in these areas.

Next in the line of commendable efforts made by the government to tackle the challenge of food insecurity, is the evolution of Public Distribution System (PDS). Introduced as a policy measure to tackle scarcity of food in the 1940s, PDS has now been evolved to take in its fold a number of other objectives as well. The procurement of food grains from farmers at a minimum support price (MSP), distribution of the procured food grains to the vulnerable strata of society at the affordable prices and the storage of excess food grains which also come in handy to maintain the security of food and stability of prices during exigencies are some of the major objectives of PDS. The government performs these functions through the Food Corporation of India (FCI) setup under Food Corporation Act, 1964.  The food procured by FCI is also used for putting in effect certain other policies of the government like Mid-Day Meals Scheme and Anganwadi Systems, to provide rations to pregnant women.

In June 1997, the government introduced another variant of PDS known as Targeted Public Distribution System, which specifically ‘targeted’ the penurious people to make them special beneficiaries of the Scheme. For this purpose, the entire population was categorized in two different categories i.e. Above the Poverty Line (APL) and Below the Poverty Line (BPL).

All these policies and Schemes culminated into the enforcement of National Food Security Act (NFSA), 2013. Apart from incorporating the amalgamation of all the policies previously discussed, this legislation also provided for the redressal of grievances by establishing institutions at the district and state level.

Legal Perspective

The right to food is often considered as an implied part of the ‘right to life’ enshrined under Article 21 of the Constitution of India. The Supreme Court of India, at several instances, has construed the right to life as a right to a ‘dignified’ life, which necessarily includes the right to food. Moreover, the Apex Court in Shantistar Builders v. Narayan Khimalal Totame (1990) 1 SCC 520 has explicitly talked about the right to food. It stated that “The right to life is guaranteed in any civilized society. That would take within its sweep the right to food…” The Honorable Court has also recognized the right to food to be an integral part of right to life under Article 21 of the Constitution in both Kishen Pattnayak & another v. State of Orissa, and People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) v. Union of India and others.

Further, the Constitution of India under Article 39(a) directs the State to ensure to all Indian citizens “the right to an adequate means of livelihood.” Article 47 mandates the State to take into consideration the raising of nutritional level amongst the citizenry.

Reasons of Failure

National Food Security Act is one of the biggest social security programmes of the world, embracing 810 million people of India as beneficiaries of subsidized food, and yet India accounted for 22% of the world’s total food insecurity in 2017-19. The takeaway from this fact is that despite having the legions of policies to tackle the issue, India has been facing a drastic debacle in eradicating food insecurity.

One set of reasons for such failure is depleting quantum of water, changing nature of climate and the loss of soil fertility due to the inordinate use of chemicals, fertilizers and pesticides which disabled the sustainability of increased production of food grains. Moreover, the high amounts of chemicals used in the production of food grains plummet the level of nutrition in food implying that an important aspect of food security is deeply set at naught. Also, a humongous amount of food grains is lost post-harvest owing to the poor storage facilities.

Another reason is the poor implementation of the Government’s schemes. The research conducted by Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations (ICRIER) heralds that while some of the intended beneficiaries do not possess ration cards to avail the benefits, various ineligible people are taking undue advantage of the Government’s schemes. Also, the practice of black marketing is widely prevalent, which is done by the Ration Depots’ owners with the facilitation of administrators. The widely prevalent corruption amongst the officials from top to bottom echelons hinders the meeting of aspirations by obstructing their effective implementation.

The Path Ahead

The Government must encourage the ‘tillers of soil’ to practice organic farming so that the quality of soil is no more deteriorated and it is allowed to replenish its fertility. For that purpose, the practice of crop diversification and the usage of bio-fertilizers can also be resorted to. Apart from that, there should be effective water management by the Government. The Government should also take adequate measures to improve the food storage facilities in the country.

To ensure that the targeted beneficiaries of a scheme are properly equipped to avail the advantages, volunteer-groups can be organized at each level to help the people who may not possess such knowledge and awareness.  Also, the Government now needs to take strict steps to ensure the transparency in the working of the administration and the ones indulging in inequity must be met with an adequate comeuppance.  


The progress is merely a mirage when such a huge number of people do not have food on their plates. Democracy and its concomitant rights do not really make sense to people with empty stomachs.  Ergo, it is extremely important that heed is paid to this issue and urgent steps are taken to defenestrate it. For, it is only then that we can actually think and talk of democracy, development and justice.

As stated by Nobel laureate Pablo Neruda, “For now I ask no more than the justice of eating.”

Author: Tanya, University Institute of Legal Studies, Panjab University, Chandigarh

Editor: Astha Garg, Junior Editor, Lexlife India.

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