26 September 2015

Modalities for implementing the right to food: the debate

On, we have had the opportunity to report on India’s new National Food Security Act at the time of its approval, almost two years ago [read here]. We had then mentioned some aspects of the debate around this Act both in India and worldwide, at a time when WTO negotiations were close to leading to the Bali agreement on agriculture which appeared then as a threat on the implementation of India’s food security programme. [read here].

An in-depth discussion of all the issues around India’s National Food Security Act is now made available through a recent FAO publication, “State food provisioning as social protection - Debating India’s national food security law”, authored by one of the main actors of a debate which lasted over a decade, Harsh Mander, now Director of the Centre for Equity Studies in New Delhi and who directed the drafting of the Food Security Act in 2013. This document raises some of the essential questions that need to be resolved in any country contemplating to design a mechanism for implementing the right to food.

India may not be “a model proposed for emulation by other countries”, as put by Harsh Mander, but “how India debates and addresses food security matters to the world” says Jomo Kwame Sundaram, Coordinator for Economic and Social Development at FAO. Although India is still the country in the world with the largest population of food insecure - 195 million according to FAO’s latest estimates [read here] - it has “explored, created and tested many strategies and tactics to reduce hunger at local level”, accumulating an invaluable experience in combatting hunger among its population of Scheduled Castes and Tribes, widows, disabled people, people with chronic diseases, orphans and abandoned children. This population is also representative of the majority of the hungry in the world who now live in middle income countries that “have domestic resources for increased food production and … [for improving] food access and utilization”.

India is one among the group of countries who have officially recognised the right to food [read here] and the National Food Security Act is the central instrument aiming at turning this right into reality. This Act “guarantees… highly subsidized – indeed nearly free – monthly rations of rice, wheat or millets to 75 percent of rural and 50 percent of urban populations (a total of around 800 million people); universal feeding programmes for preschool and schoolchildren, and pregnant and lactating mothers; and universal maternity entitlements. It also mandates the creation of institutional mechanisms (among them, grievance redress systems) for the enforcement of the law at national, state and district levels.

The main points of the debate:

  1. Is economic growth sufficient to reduce poverty and hunger, or is there a need for direct government intervention for securing basic human needs like food, education, health care and social security?

  2. Those in favour of government intervention argue that experience shows that economic growth is not sufficient to eradicate poverty and hunger, but that a series of public actions are required to achieve this desired result. Economic growth does not generate employment opportunities for all, and people, when undernourished, cannot use opportunities created by economic growth. [read here]

  3. Opponents argue that food distribution is expensive and wasteful, a potential source for leakages and corruption, and that resources consumed could be used for more productive purposes.

  4. Should the duties of the state to provision food as social protection be embodied in law and be justiciable in a court of law?

  5. Those against this idea argue that only civil and political rights should be embodied in law, while the decision to allocate resources to the respect of socio-economic rights should only be morally binding as it is the responsibility of the executive power, on the ground of the separation of the executive and judicial powers, and of the limited capacity of the State. Those who support this idea justified the inclusion in a law by the fact that the right to food can be considered as an integral part of the constitutional right to life.

  6. Should the food security law be restricted to state food provisioning, or incorporate all dimensions of food and nutrition security (i.e. protect a household’s capacities to grow or buy sufficient food, access to sanitation, clean water, healthcare, etc.)?

  7. In a country where many rural people are landless, where farmer suicides are frequent and agriculture is in crisis, many argue in favour of addressing all the dimensions of food and nutrition security and including into the Act provisions for land reform, agricultural services, clean water, sanitation, health services, maternity benefits and other items. Opponents argued that this would make the implementation of the Act impossible.

  8. Another debate was about the nature of the food provided: should it be limited to rice and cereals or should it also include protein-rich food like pulses and oil?

  9. Should the support be provided through distribution of food in nature or by cash transfers, or by a combination of the two? Should the food be cooked or uncooked?

  10. Arguments in favour of cash transfers include: beneficiaries could buy the type of food they want on the market, instead of having to take often inferior quality food from the local ration shop; it would bypass brokers, reduce wastage and require less public stocks; it should reduce costs and corruption opportunities. Opponents to cash transfers argue that they would not really reduce leakages or corruption and that the Indian banking is not sufficiently well develop for beneficiaries not to incur additional costs (time and transport fees to travel for withdrawing cash). They also raise the risk of misuse by men of the cash provided and the possibility of causing food inflation. They emphasise the advantage of government procurement which providise a secure market for farmers.

  11. Generally, it is accepted that distribution in kind to households should be of uncooked food. But many agree also that cooked food may be better distributed to some particularly vulnerable individuals (children, adolescent girls, pregnant women, lactating mothers) and to those who are unable to cook, such as the homeless and destitute. Cooked meals, some argue, can also be used for micronutrient fortification.

  12. Who should receive these food and social protection transfers? Should they be limited to legal citizen or also benefit to illegal migrants? Should they be for all citizens alike, whether poor or rich?

  13. The main argument for limiting benefits to legal citizens is the need to cut costs and reduce the volume distributed. But those in favour of including everyone support their views by the universal characteristic of the right to food. The debate was also on whether universal means giving the same support to all, whether poor or rich. Proponents of uniformity use an ethical and legal argument, all citizen being equal. To add to this, some say that methods to identify the needy often exclude those most in need and manipulations can include people who should normally not qualify. Also, the needy are often unable to understand and take part in the processes to be followed in order to benefit. But opponents to an universal distribution argue that the cost would be horrendous and that there is not justification to feed the well-fed.

  14. What forms of state provisioning best secure the food and nutrition security of children?

  15. Some argue that crèche or child care services are essential to ensure proper nutrition of children with working or impoverished mothers who cannot breastfeed them. For children more than 6 months old, there is debate on whether to use packaged food (with micronutrient fortification) or cooked meals that provide more culturally appropriate food that is not influenced by commercial interests but that may sometimes be served in poor hygienic conditions.

  16. What forms of state provisioning best secure food entitlements for women and girls?

  17. Because of the discrimination endured by women, they are more likely to suffer from undernourishment. To counterbalance their lack of power, the elder woman of a household has been designated in India to be the ration card holder. Special rations and entitlements are granted to pregnant or lactating women. The debate has been on whether additional rations should just be added to the household entitlement or whether special cooked meals should be provided to women (although it has been mentioned as unlikely that women would every day visit a feeding center). Maternity benefits have been criticised as being too low to really compensate for loss of revenue gained from wage labour. Finally, critiques observe that women should also be supported when they are not engaged in the reproductive cycle.

  18. What forms of state provisioning best secure the rights of vulnerable groups?

  19. The most vulnerable groups are likely to be bypassed by the general provision of a food assistance programme and therefore should benefit from special provisionning entitlements. This is the case, for example, of the aged, of disabled persons, single women, street children and migrants. Various alternatives were considered and debated, including opening up special centers (State managed or managed by charities or religious organisations). Critiques thought that rather than create new special mechanisms and add to the complexity of the programme, it would be better to try and improve the general programme.

  20. Should state food and cash transfers have conditionnalities attached?

  21. Conditions put forward by proponents included, for maternity benefits, age of marriage, family size, ante- and postneonatal checkups, vaccinations, and institutional deliveries. For school meals, implicit conditions are school enrolment (but not school performance). Critiques of conditions argue that they assume that the poor are incapable of making good decisions independently and that their behaviour has to be conditioned by penalizing them if they fail to take socially beneficial decisions. There is also a risk, they add, to punish people for not being able to fullfil the conditions because of their disadvantaged position.

  22. How can citizens hold the state accountable for ensuring their right to food?

  23. Three kinds of mechanisms are deployed for redressing grievances: (i) administrative in which any official action which violates rights can be challenged before a higher administrative authority; (ii) political, with local government-elected representatives; and (iii) judiciary. The latter appears to be the most independent, but all three are not very accessible to the most vulnerable population groups. As a consequence, there is an increasing call on quasi-judicial grievance redress mechanisms, such as state human rights institutions, ombudsperson offices and autonomous tribunals. The debate has been on the selection process of members of these latter organisations. It also touched on the difficulty to identify the right level in administration in which failure occurred and on the type of penalties to be imposed to the responsible officials.

This publication touches upon many of the key issues that are of importance when implementing the right to food. It is a must read for anyone interested by modalities to concretise the right to food, and particularly those who are in charge of designing and implementing them at national or local level.


To know more:

  1. -Mander, H., State food provisionning as social protection - Deating India’s national food security law, Right to Food Study, FAO 2015

  2. -Trueba and MacMillan, How to End Hunger in Times of Crises, 2013

  3. -Graziano da Silva, Del Grossi,  De França, The Fome Zero (Zero Hunger) Program - The Brazilian Experience, 2011

  4. -FAO, Guide for Policy and Programmatic Actions at Country Level
    to Address High Food Prices
    , 2011

  5. -WFP, Vouchers and Cash Transfers as Food Assistance Instruments: Opportunities and Challenges, 2008

Earlier articles on related to the topic:

  1. -MacMillan, A., Cash transfers to eradicate hunger, 2015

  2. -India approves the largest ever food security programme, 2013

  3. -Bali: first agreement on agriculture since the creation of WTO - India will be able to implement its new food security law, 2013

  4. -Food for the undernourished (second principle), 2013

  5. -The Right to Food: progress and limits, 2013


Last update:    September 2015

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