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Home > Environment, Health and Social Justice > India: Food insecurity and statistical fog | Jean Drèze

India: Food insecurity and statistical fog | Jean Drèze

26 February 2015

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The Hindu, February 25, 2015

The implementation of the National Food Security Act is mired in apathy and confusion. A grave injustice is being done to millions of people who live on the margin of subsistence. It is not too late to remove the roadblocks, but this requires a sense of urgency

An odd silence has surrounded the National Food Security Act (NFSA) in the last few months — as if food insecurity were a thing of the past. It may be recalled that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), far from opposing the Act, vociferously demanded a more comprehensive law when the NFSA was being discussed in Parliament in 2013. In some States, notably Chhattisgarh, the BJP had taken the lead in guaranteeing entitlements that were later included in the Act, and also in showing that the Public Distribution System (PDS) can be reformed. Today, however, the Modi government’s urge to “get things done” does not seem to extend to the NFSA.

Step towards food security

This is unfortunate because the nutrition situation in India remains critical. Very few countries if any, had higher levels of child undernourishment in 2005-6, the last time India collected reliable nutrition statistics at the national level (under the third National Family Health Survey). What happened since then is hard to tell. Some surveys, including a government-sponsored UNICEF survey, suggest significant improvement. Others, notably the second India Human Development Survey, point to very limited progress. This statistical fog, largely due to the failure of the fourth National Family Health Survey, does not help matters. What is clear is that even if substantial progress took place since 2005-6, undernutrition levels in India remain higher than almost anywhere else in the world.

It is no one’s claim that the NFSA is an adequate answer to this problem. The Act has serious flaws, and leaves out some important requirements of good nutrition (e.g. sanitation). Still, effective implementation of NFSA would make an important contribution to food security and improved nutrition. Recent experience shows that a well-functioning PDS makes a big difference to people who live on the margin of subsistence. The Act is also an opportunity to strengthen valuable child nutrition programmes such as school meals and the Integrated Child Development Services.

Central and State governments are jointly responsible for the tardy implementation of the Act. In some respects, the blame clearly lies with the Central government. For instance, ever since July 2013, all Indian women have been entitled to maternity benefits of Rs.6,000 per month under NFSA. It is the Central government’s responsibility to design a scheme for this purpose and to fund it. Yet, this critical provision of the Act does not seem to figure in discussions of the forthcoming Budget.
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