Aatmanirbhar Bharat needs an upgraded food security system

India’s food security measures must be updated with the changing times. There is an urgent need to ensure more wholesome rations, assure farmers a uniform income, and integrate the food processing industry to fortify the nutritional, social and economic benefits of the system.

In a developing country like India, the implication of providing food to the needy sections of society mainly translates into providing grains, which are generally wheat and rice, and sometimes, pulses. The system of grain-centric food support in our country came into effect as a result of frequent famines during the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, which resulted in almost 60 million deaths, with the last one being the infamous Bengal famine of 1943. India has come a long way from that period of famines in terms of food production and security. Hence, there is an urgent need to upgrade food security efforts in line with social changes and the aspirations of the targeted population.

India’s efforts towards food security started in 1964 with the establishment of the Food Corporation of India (FCI) which laid the foundation of the assured procurement at minimum support price, warehousing, pan-India movement and distribution of food grains. At the global level, during the first World Food Summit (WFS) in 1974, Henry Kissinger declared that there would be no malnutrition after ten years from then but, unfortunately, the global community could not come anywhere near that target. Again, at the WFS in 1996, the participants took a pledge to reduce malnutrition by half by 2015 and similar targets were set as part of the 2000 Millennium Development Goals by the UN too. However, even today, almost 43 percent of children are undernourished in our country and India ranks 74 out of 113 countries on the food security index.

The Government of India enacted the Food Security Act 2013 which integrated existing food programmes such as the Public Distribution System (PDS), Mid-Day Meal Scheme and Integrated Child Development Programmes into legal entitlement. There is no doubt that all governments realised the need to feed the deprived sections of the society, however, no innovative steps have been initiated to make the entitlement wholesome and no qualitative upgradation has been brought about in the scales of entitlement in terms of the variety of food items to be authorised.

India has undoubtedly become a grain surplus country as a result of the ‘green revolution’, but it also needs to be realised that the nourishment requirements go far beyond rice, wheat and pulses. It is estimated that quality protein intake in our country is just about 20 percent of the prescribed amount, which explains the high prevalence of malnutrition here. There is also an urgent need to have a relook at the concept and implementation of food security in India. Governments must be dynamic in their thoughts and actions to keep pace with the changing times. Government policies must be revised periodically to ensure that the composition of food stuff distributed by the Central and state governments under various welfare schemes is wholesome and nutritious. This will not only ensure wholesome food for the recipients but also give a big boost to the food processing industry, assure a uniform income to farmers and, thereby, contribute towards the ideal of ‘Aatmanirbhar Bharat’.

The concept of minimum support price was introduced to mitigate farmers’ risk and assure them that the government would procure wheat and paddy at a pre-declared support price, irrespective of the requirement. As a result, while we have been importing pulses till recently, wheat and rice stocks with the government have been burgeoning and rotting in storage. Cultivating too much paddy and wheat, which are considered to be cash crops, has also adversely affected the sub-soil water levels in food surplus states like Punjab due to the over-exploitation of groundwater. Likewise, the repeated cultivation of wheat on the same land has adversely affected crop rotation which has resulted in reduced productivity due to the degradation of soil quality and vulnerability to pests and insects. This has also resulted in the added requirement of pesticides which have their own adverse effects on food and the environment. In such a scenario, including newer varieties of food items will automatically motivate farmers to diversify into farming crops other than cereals.

In light of the above, food security, including production and post-harvest management, needs a transformation. To begin with, the authorities need to comprehend that food security being provided to the needy citizens under the Food Security Act 2013 is an entitlement and not a favour being done to them. The distribution under the PDS cannot be used to get rid of substandard food grains that have been infested in storage or due to poor management and quality control. There is a need for a proper quality control mechanism and authority with all stakeholders so the quality of food is verified before consumption. To make food nutritious, there is a need to increase the ingredients of the entitled rations available under various government schemes. There is also a need to include food items which are rich in proteins and other components of a balanced diet. The inclusion of processed foods in the diet of schemes such as Mid-Day Meals can give multifarious benefits to all stakeholders including consumers, farmers and the food processing industry.

Another industry which can add tremendous value to the Indian food chain is the cold chain industry. Cold chain in India is extremely unorganised and unreliable due to inadequate infrastructure and unavailability of power. The absence of food processing and cold chains at the required scale also deprives citizens of hygienic food across the country which has now become a necessity, especially in the pandemic period. India incurs an annual post-harvest wastage of vegetables and fruits worth Rs 2 trillion due to the inadequate food processing and cold chain infrastructure in the country. We are a country obsessed with fresh vegetables and fruit, howsoever stale they might be by the time they reach our dining tables. The Indian way of cooking at high temperatures fortunately mitigates the risk of food poisoning or infection, but the nutritional value of such fruits and vegetables is for sure reduced. There is a need to include processed food as part of the PDS and other government schemes. This will not only add variety to the food for the recipients but also encourage the food processing industry. It will reduce the post-harvest wastage of vegetables and fruits too and ensure that the prices of fresh and processed food items stabilise. Moreover, farmers will be saved from the ill effects of unstable prices of the produce facilitated by the availability of food processing units.

Modern techniques of food processing which produce foods such as dehydrated products, do not use any preservatives, and do not need cold chains for transportation or storage are the most suited for inclusion. Likewise, some dairy products too can be included to add variety to the food. This will be a game changer for the food processing and cold chain industries because India is such a big market domestically. A dynamic concept of food security incorporating the above recommendations has the potential to transform the Indian economy, especially the rural economy, and thereby make ‘Bharat’ truly ‘aatmanirbhar’.

During 39 years of military service, he secured the apex appointment of Director General of Supplies & Transport of Army, headed a force of approximate 75,000 officers, JCOs, jawans and civilians deployed across India. He also served as the Director General of Information Technology of the Army. He is actively involved with think tanks such as USI, CLAWS, IDSA and ORF. The views expressed are personal.