17 July 2012

Standing on the Threshold: Food Justice in India

Apologies readers (if you are still out there) for the long silence. For the past 3 weeks I have not been able to find the odd hour here and there to contribute to this blog. In late June I was busy with the IDS Board, the following week was the IDS Annual Review, the next week was a short holiday and then this week I am in Delhi for the launch of the Oxfam India-IDS Bulletin, Standing on the Threshold: Food Justice in India.

India stands on the threshold of potentially the largest step toward food justice the world has ever seen. “Threshold” because the National Food Security Bill is working its way through parliament with a view to being passed during its current term-period. “Largest” because the Bill will cover approximately 70% of all Indian households, easily the highest proportion of households covered by such a programme. “Justice” because the improved access to food has been catalysed, monitored and ordered by the courts, starting with the Supreme Court. “Potential” because (a) having a Bill on the books is quite different from having it implemented, (b) the Bill is only as good as the programmes it has to work through, and (c) there are many threats to food security that are way beyond the Bill’s remit, climate change being the most significant. “Step torward” because Indian food security and nutrition levels are not being swept up in the tide of GDP per capita growth—they remain rooted to the sea bed.

The special IDS Bulletin, co-constructed with Oxfam India, brings together the views and opinions of some of India’s leading practitioner-thinkers on these issues.
The Bulletin consists of 15 papers, written by 21 authors (18 of them are from India). The themes are (a) gaining rights, (b) gaining justice and (c) maintaining rights and justice in the face of new threats.
The Bulletin kicks off with a series of papers that describe the long struggle to translate a couple of Articles in Indian’s 1948 constitution into rights that courts can rule upon. The Bulletin then focuses on how gaining rights needs to be translated into justice. So make sure the rights bite. For example: stamp out systemic and idiosyncratic discrimination in existing programmes, make the existing programmes work better, introduce accountability and recourse mechanisms and track government commitment to protecting, respecting and fulfilling rights. The final section then talks about the new challenges to food security and respecting and protecting food rights: food price speculation (who to hold to account?), climate change (who’s rights are more important—current, next or unborn generations?).
My powerpoints are here and the links to the Bulletin are here and here.
The National Food Security Bill’s progress through parliament has stalled on issues around affordability as inflation and interest rates rise and economic growth slows, the government is getting nervous.
NC Saxena, one of the 2 Food Security Commissioners of the Supreme Court, argued in his presentation that the government can manage its financial exposure by varying the subsidy price—what matters to poor consumers is the reliability of access to subsidised food—yes, they care about the price, but more about the security and stability of access.
Harsh Mander, the other Food Security Commissioner also noted that India’s tax take to GDP ratio is unusually low and that not enough attention is being given to tax revenue to pay for the NFSB.
The implications for the National Food Security Bill? In additional to the technical issues (Universal or targeted? Which staples to subsidies? What price level to set? Whether to link procurement volume to production performance?) the rights based genesis of the Bill promotes a focus on:
* accountability and responsiveness (monitoring, impact assessment, social accountability mechanism)
* the capacity of the States to deliver
* the capacity of citizens (as individuals and in social movements) to claim their rights
* the politics of food security.

As Prof. Yogendra Yadav argued (see tomorrow’s blog) “the problem of food security and its solution lies in the domain of politics”.

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