As the world’s second most populous country, with nearly one and a quarter billion people and about 600 million of those involved in agriculture, India is an important country to watch with regards to agricultural land management and food security. However, the question of how to best relieve some of the food insecurity and poverty in a country with such a large population and with such a wide wealth disparity, continues to provoke debate. So when the National Food Security Bill was issued as an ordinance by the government last Wednesday, there was considerable stir over the anticipated effects of such legislation.
This bill builds on the existing US$15 billion in food subsidies, including payments to farmers, that the Indian government already has in place. Under the new legislation, this amount would increase to US$22 billion per year, providing three quarters of the rural population and half in urban areas with 5kg per month of subsidized grain (rice, wheat, and other coarse grains). Additional support and special benefits would also go to the poorest households, pregnant and lactating women, and children, likely making this the largest food subsidy program in the world.
All that said, the bill still requires further approval – the signature of President Pranab Mukherjee and ratification in both Parliamentary houses – and there are many critiques. The concerns seems to fall into three main categories: corruption within the existing distribution system; lack of infrastructure for storage and transport; and the perverse incentives provided to farmers who make up a large proportion of the subsidized grain recipients. Some even argue that such a food aid program is better conceived as a short-term measure restricted to a time of crisis, whereas India really requires more investment into agriculture itself.
While the bill does contain some reference supporting revitalization of agriculture, it is unclear at what scale. Proposed measures of agrarian reform include increased investment in agriculture research, extension, irrigation, and power; improved access to credit, inputs, crop insurance, etc.; and decentralized procurement, storage, and transportation of harvests, prioritizing grain crops. In a country that finds itself with increasingly short water supplies and degraded soils, particularly in the heavy production States of Punjab and Haryana, long-term sustainability of agricultural production, ecosystem services, and rural livelihoods will need to find a place in the legislation. It will be interesting to see if and how India’s approach to food security and agriculture changes as the bill moves to next stages.
Indian National Food Security Bill 2013
Ahead of Elections, India’s Cabinet Approves Food Security Program – New York Times India Ink