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Looking for answers to the food security problem:
India under current compulsions

Research Paper No. 2006/123

Nilabja Ghosh1 and Basudeb Guha-Khasnobis2

October 2006

SARPN acknowledges WIDER as a source of this document:
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With the advance of agricultural technology, yield rates of food crops in the world and many developing countries have improved considerably and the food problem is no longer one of global or national food shortage (Pinstrup-Anderson 2002). However, household food insecurity associated with insufficient purchasing power may very well coexist with food abundance at global, national or even sub-national levels. It is, in fact, a form of extreme poverty that depletes the productive capacity inherent in people and creates a vicious circle of poverty and incapacity in which food-insecure households also tend to remain poor. Food is a ‘capability’. It is not only an end but also a means to a variety of ends (Harriss-White 1999; Sen 1995).

Household food insecurity has conventionally been battled with mainstream employment and growth-oriented strategies that improve the purchasing power of households and thus ameliorate poverty. However, historically the conventional macroeconomic employment-generating state policies in a developing country most often failed to recognize the complex realities of the labour market (Braun 1995). Thus, they bypassed certain sections of the society, giving rise to inequality while poverty and food insecurity persisted. Similarly, the current process of structural adjustment and globalization that is expected to bridge areas of shortage and abundance not only within a country but also across countries through the smooth operation of market mechanism can do no better. They do provide benefit to many, but also leave many others worse off. The ‘losers’ are likely to be people who are (i) unskilled due to historical reasons, (ii) physically and economically too weak to compete or (iii) geographically disadvantaged with insufficient and inappropriate resources to utilize the opportunities offered by the market. Growth alone cannot correct the human specificities related to gender, geography, social class or disease. Many believe that mainstream strategies need to be accompanied by direct attempts to eliminate deprivation.

Today, the choice of an appropriate strategy to combat poverty and food insecurity has become an extremely complex task due to policy contradictions and ideological dissension generated by growth-oriented policies and poverty alleviation programmes. On the one hand, efforts at market liberalization and structural adjustment that aim for faster growth are inevitably accompanied with measures for fiscal tightness and shrinkage of public operations. The simultaneous move towards free competitive world markets also calls for cuts in support funds that often serve to assist vulnerable groups. The subsidy- and support-based approach to food security has become incompatible with the present situation. Direct poverty alleviation programmes themselves impose, on the other hand, an immense budgetary burden and drain public resources that could be used to generate more sustainable growth. Moreover, subsidies and conventional poverty programmes command considerable political sensitivity and hence offer little flexibility as policy instruments. Administration of poverty programmes is complex and cannot avoid leakages or inefficient use of funds. A compromise approach that has gained acceptance in the contemporary world is safety-netting for the poor and vulnerable through instruments which ensure maximum targeting. Specific targeting, facilitated by transparency and participation of the people, can save on costly public resources and yet reach the truly needy, such as food-insecure families.

This paper deals with the solutions adopted by India, a country with a long and diverse history of development and poverty alleviation, albeit with varying success. The approach to food security evolved through some laudable successes as well as reprehensible failures. In the 1990s, India launched epochal institutional changes and embarked on a programme of structural adjustment and globalization. Furthermore, India’s political system is struggling to achieve a consensus for eliminating poverty-induced food insecurity through approaches and instruments that would be consistent with its macroeconomic policies. The finer designs of the programmes as well as the institutions that govern their implementation are important for achieving the objectives. The paper reviews the experience of India in fighting the poverty and food problem, and discusses the changing orientation of strategies towards new and innovative methods, also as institutions for rural governance transform. The report traces the evolution of the strategy of public works programme (PWP) that now promises to be an acceptable instrument for targeting. The strategy is considered for its merits and concerns. An empirical study of the rural public works programme in four states is conducted, first, to determine whether a linkage exists between a public works programme and food insecurity, and second to investigate econometrically whether the programme indeed succeeds in seeking out households likely to be food insecure and further to highlight who among the food insecure the programme possibly passes over.

  1. Institute of Economic Growth, Delhi University, email: ;
  2. UNU-WIDER, email:

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