Nature of Food Problem in India Beforeand After Independence

A RECENT publication, Food Insecurity Atlas of Urban India, brought out by the M. S. Swaminathan Research Foundation (MSSRF) and the World Food Programme (WFP) indicates that more than 38 per cent of children under the age of three in India’s cities and towns are underweight and more than 35 per cent of children in urban areas are stunted (shorter than they should be for their age).

The report states that the poor in India’s burgeoning urban areas do not get the requisite amount of calories or nutrients specified by accepted Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) norms and also suggests that absorption and assimilation of food by the urban poor is further impaired by non-food factors such as inadequate sanitation facilities, insufficient housing and woeful access to clean drinking water. More than 21 per cent of India’s urban population live in slums, 23 per cent of urban households do not have access to toilet facilities and nearly 8 per cent of urban households are unable to find safe drinking water.

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This publication is the second in a three-part series. The Food Insecurity Atlas of Rural India was released in 2001 and the Sustainability of Food Security Atlas of India is forthcoming. The Food Insecurity Atlas of Urban India provides comprehensive analysis on the extent of food insecurity in India’scities and towns and uses a series of maps to identify food insecurity “hotspots” in the country. The urban Atlas uses existing data to analyse food security problems andthe main data sources are the Census of India and National Sample Surveys (NSS).

Data have also been taken from National Family Health Surveys, Pollution Control Boards, the Health Information of India compiled by the Ministry of Health, and the Environmental Compendium. The study excludes the north-eastern States of Mizoram, Manipur, Nagaland, Meghalaya, Arunachal Pradesh, Tripura and Sikkim since NSS statistics for these areas are found to be unreliable. Providing food security to the urban population has been made more vital by the fact that urbanisation has been a dominating trend throughout the world in the last half century.

According to the 1961 Census of India, 17. 97 per cent of the country’s population lived in urban areas. In 2001, thatfigure was 27. 78 per cent, amounting to 285 million people. The United Nations estimates that India’s urban population will reach 600 million by the year 2025. Urbanisation has already eaten up vast quantities of productive land and has placed enormous pressure on the available infrastructure. The past decade of liberalisation has brought about vast changes in the country, the effects of which have been more pronounced in urban areas.

Yet, the spectre of urban poverty haunts India’s crowded cities, and providing food security to the urban population has and will continue to be a tremendous challenge. Superficial observation may suggest that the concern about urban food security is misplaced. After all, it is images of starvation and malnutrition from rural India that most often flash across our television screens. However, the Food Insecurity Atlas of Urban India maintains that ” a closer look makes one wonder whether urban lower income groups are really better off than their rural counterparts. The Atlas cites NSS data to indicate that average urban calorie intake is lower than average rural calorie intake. Another disturbing fact pointed out by NSS statistics is that average calorie intake has declined marginally in urban and rural India in the last three decades. That the analysis of food security requires a more broad-based approach than the mere focus on calorie intake is a view prescribed by the Food Insecurity Atlas. As the Atlas suggests, the problem of urban hunger is almost paradoxical.

On the surface, life for all sections in urban India appears to be easier than in rural India. Wages and salaries are higher in urban areas; infrastructure is superior in cities and towns when compared with villages; schools and hospitals are more accessible; food availability is rarely a problem; and small signs of wealth such as radios and televisions are common, even in the slums. However, such observations are deceptive. For example, even though urban wages and salaries are higher than rural wages and salaries, the urban poor fare poorly in terms of livelihood security.

Vulnerable groups in urban areas often depend on casual employment and daily wages. The uncertainty of these avenues of income have a significant effect on the food security of the urban poor. In 1996, the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) defined food security as a situation which “exists when all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life. TheFood Insecurity Atlas of Urban India adopts a broader definition of the concept and views food security from three different angles — 1) the availability of food, which depends on production and distribution; 2) the access to food, which is determined by an individual’s purchasing power, andin turnpurchasing power is affected by livelihood access, access to housing, and caste and gender discrimination; and 3) the absorption of food, which is affected by sanitation, clean drinking water and health care.

The report identifies 17 key indicators, which fall into six categories (food affordability and availability, livelihood access, access to housing, discrimination in livelihood access, access to sanitation, and health and nutritional outcome) that in turn can be grouped under the classifications of availability, access, and absorption of food. Indices and maps of food insecurity are created and food insecurity “hotspots” are identified from the 20 States studied.

According to the unweighted insecurity map in the report, the urban population of Madhya Pradesh is the most food insecure in India. Madhya Pradesh is not highly urbanised yet fails dismally in almost half of the urban food security indicators. The State is also an example of the fact that average calorie consumption alone is not a complete indicator of food insecurity.

Even though the average calorie consumption in the State is higher than in some relatively more advanced States, the incidence of poverty, the percentage of casual labour among the lowest 10 per cent of the population (by monthly per capita expenditure), the percentage of illiterates, the infant mortality rate, the percentage of population living in slums and the percentage of population living in temporary structures are all high and the urban poor have insufficient access to toilet facilities and safe drinking water. All these factors combined negatively to affect food security.

Along with Madhya Pradesh, the urban populations of Orissa and Pondicherry are classified as “extremely food insecure”. Urban Uttar Pradesh and Bihar remain close behind these States and are categorised as “severely food insecure”. The urban populations in Himachal Pradesh, Jammu and Kashmir and Delhi are the most “food secure”, with urban Himachal Pradesh leading this category. What is interesting is that only 10 per cent of Himachal Pradesh’s population lives in urban areas, which is very low compared with most other States. In contrast, Tamil Nadu with 43. 6 per cent of its population living in cities and towns is the most urbanised State in the study (if Delhi and the Union Territories of Pondicherry and Chandigarh are excepted as non-comparable). One surprising finding of the report is that urban Kerala is not considered to be food secure. Although Kerala is the most advanced State in the country in terms of human development and all basic social indicators, the urban population in Kerala falls in the same category in the unweighted map as the urban population in Haryana, Rajasthan, Gujarat, Karnataka, Assam and Punjab.

In fact, the NSS data used indicate that the average calorie intake in urban Kerala is lower than that in urban Madhya Pradesh, the most food insecure State in the study. An equally unexpected finding is that urban population in Rajasthan is more food secure than urban Tamil Nadu and urban Maharashtra. However, there may be some explanations for the Kerala paradox (see “New Data on Calorie Intakes”, Frontline, March 12, 1999). One viewpoint suggests that even though calorie intakes are low in Kerala, nutrients are better utilised since health care, sanitation and education are more advanced in the State.

The assertion is also made that NSS data underestimate consumption in Kerala and do not provide an accurate picture. The Atlas reveals a relationship between urbanisation and the food consumption of the bottom 10 per cent of the population. It shows that the cereal intake of the lowest 10 per cent is negatively related to the extent of urbanisation. This is vital information since cereal consumption is the main source of calories for the bottom 10 per cent and the trend implies that the poor in States where the urban population constitutes a large proportion of the total population eat less than in States with lower urbanisation.

The Atlas indicates that the lowest urban deciles (by monthly expenditure) in all States eat less than the State average. Further the diet of the lowest deciles in all States is barely diversified and hardly contains vegetables, fruits, pulses, meat, fish, milk and eggs. Livelihood access is vital in achieving urban food security. Large sections of lower income groups depend on casual employment or are self-employed in petty businesses and these types of employment are usually accompanied by uncertain incomes.

For the country as a whole, more than 14 per cent of the urban population is dependent on casual labour as a means of livelihood. For the lowest 10 per cent of the urban population in India, 37. 49 per cent are engaged in casual labour and 41. 34 per cent are self-employed, suggesting that a vast majority of the urban poor are vulnerable to uncertain incomes and, hence, vulnerable to under-nourishment. The Atlas is also unique in considering discrimination in livelihood access, indicated by caste and gender discrimination, and the quality of ousing in its evaluation of food insecurity. It suggests that discrimination at the social level translates into discrimination in livelihood access, food access, access to medical relief, and access to education. The report shows that there is a disproportionate representation of the Scheduled Castes (SCs) in the poorest sections of the urban population. In urban lower income classes, SCs outnumber other social groups. For urban India, as a whole, 47. 5 per cent of the urban SC population is in the four lowest monthly expenditure classes.

For the urban Scheduled Tribe (ST) population, the proportion was 43. 1 per cent and for the urban Other Backward Castes (OBCs) population, the proportion was 36. 9 per cent. In comparison, for sections of society other than SCs, STs and OBCs, only 20 per cent belong to the four lowest groups. The report also indicates that there is a strong connection between the status of women in society and food security. The study points out that unemployment is on the rise in urban India and that current daily status unemployment is as high as 9. per cent for lower expenditure classes. This has implications for food-for-work programmes. Higher unemployment rates are indicative of lower calorie intakes among the bottom 10 per cent and employment status can be used to identify target groups for food-for-work programmes. The effect of inadequate employment opportunities is compounded by low literacy levels and for the country as a whole, 27. 7 per cent of the urban population is illiterate. All these factors reinforce the need to implement food-for-work programmes for urban casual labour.

The Atlas cautions that the head count ratio of poverty does not reflect the calorie base and recommends de-linking the head count ratio of poverty from the allocation of Public Distribution System (PDS) foodgrains. The Atlas endorses the proposal by the Committee on Long-Term Grain Policy (Frontline, August 30, 2002) that PDS be made universal. The problem of hunger in India is definitely not one of scarce food production. At the start of December 2002, India had a surplus of 53. 56 million tonnes of foodgrains. As with many other aspects of poverty, the problem of food insecurity is often one of governance.

Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen pointed out that, unlike famines, chronic undernourishment receives little political attention. Writing in The Guardian (June 16, 2002), Sen states: “Alas, hunger in the non-acute form of endemic under-nourishment often turns out to be not particularly politically explosive. Even democratic governments can survive with a good deal of regular under-nourishment. For example, while famines have been eliminated in democratic India (they disappeared immediately in 1947, with Independence and multi-party elections), there is a remarkable continuation of endemic under-nourishment in a non-acute form. The extent of deprivation revealed by the Food Insecurity Atlas should be unacceptable to most countries in this age of technology and globalisation. Yet, the issue rarely occupies an important place on any party’s political agenda. The urgency to alleviate urban food insecurity and the larger problem of urban poverty is best expressed by the declaration of the 1996 Recife International Meeting on Urban Poverty: “Urban poverty and its attendant human cost is perhaps the single greatest challenge of our time.

The future of our towns and cities, which is where most of humanity will live in the next century, hinges on our tackling it successfully. The centerpiece of urban policy as we enter the 21st Century must therefore be the struggle against poverty, with goals such as the integration of the informal city, the recovery and democratic use of public space, and the reversal of the trend towards the concentration of wealth and opportunities, which so often ends in a spiral of violence. ” The Food Insecurity Atlas demonstrates that the problems of food security and urban poverty are multi-faceted.

An integrated approach that focusses on the provision of affordable food to the urban poor along with the development of employment and educational opportunities, improved access to permanent shelter, sanitation facilities, safe drinking water and improved medical care for impoverished sections of the population is vital in addressing the significant levels of urban economic deprivation. Policy makers can ill-afford complacency in dealing with urban poverty or more-of-the-same solutions.


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