India’s Food Sovereignty

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This article is written by Aayushi Gupta from Rajiv Gandhi National University of Law. This article explains what food sovereignty is, what is its position in India, what steps are taken by the government to ensure food sovereignty and what reforms could be brought for its furtherance.

Introduction

The term Food Sovereignty was first framed by the International Peasant Movement La Via Campesina at the World Food Summit in as early as 1996. It is simply defined as the peoples’, countries’ and State’s and Union’s right to define their agricultural and food policy. Food sovereignty mainly focuses more on the creation of a food system that helps people and the environment rather than make profits for multinational companies.

Food Sovereignty

Big business dominates our global food system and only a handful of large corporations have autonomy over production, processing, distribution, and retail of goods. This concentration of power in the hands of big businesses wipes out the competition and helps them to dictate their terms to the suppliers. And this system, therefore, forces farmers and consumers to poverty and deprivation. This crucial issue was first raised by the International Peasants’ Movement La Via Campesina at the World Food Summit in 1996 in Rome. La Via Campesina is one of the largest social movements in the world which brings together over 200 million small and medium-scale farmers, women farmers, indigenous labourers and migrant workers from over 70 countries. This organization presented an anti-colonial critique of the foreign domination of states by the International trade rules of WTO as well as by the neo-liberal policies of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. And the foundation of this kind of sovereignty was based on food production. Therefore, food sovereignty first serves the food producers and then the consumers.

Food sovereignty is simply defined as the rights of people to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through environmentally friendly and sustainable methods and their right to define their own food and agricultural systems. La Via Campesina is one of the movements which fights against the injustices in the food system. It defined food sovereignty by fighting for women’s rights as well as against the land grabs and the rise of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO). Food sovereignty puts those who produce, distribute, and consume food at the heart of the food systems rather than making profits for the markets and corporations. 

Food sovereignty differs from food security in a certain way. Food sovereignty, on one hand, is rooted in grassroots food movements and fights for a food system that works democratically, one that involves inputs from the citizens, thus increasing their role in the system. Food security, on the other hand, aims to protect and distribute the existing food systems. Food Security is a goal while food sovereignty is a way to reach there.

Food sovereignty basically includes:

  • Prioritizing local agricultural productions, access of peasants and farmers to land, water and soil, need for land reforms and fighting against Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs).
  • The rights of farmers to produce food and the rights of consumers to decide what to consume.
  • The rights of countries to protect themselves from very low priced agricultural and food products.
  • The involvement of the population in policy decisions.
  • The recognition of women farmers’ rights, who play an essential role in the agricultural sector.
  • Fighting against the neo-liberal policies which prioritize international trade over people.

Food Sovereignty is not a universal silver bullet solution but the democratization of food production which can be further developed and adapted to other conditions. The first six pillars of food sovereignty were developed at the International Forum for Food Sovereignty at Nyeleni, Mali in 2007. And the seventh pillar was added by the members of the Indigenous Circle during the People’s Food Policy Process. These seven pillars are as follows:

  • Focus on food for people: It puts people’s need for food at the centre and states that food is not just a commodity.
  • Build Knowledge and Skill: It uses research as a tool to empower and pass knowledge to future generations and also discards those technological developments which threaten the environmental balance.
  • Work with nature: It means optimizing the contribution of the ecosystem and improve resilience.
  • Values food provider: It means supporting sustainable livelihoods and respecting everybody’s work.
  • Localizes food system: It reduces the distance between food producers and consumers and also withstands or reduces dependency on distant and unanswerable corporations.
  • Encourages Local control: It places control in the hands of local food producers and combats the privatization of local resources.
  • Food is sacred: This principle recognizes that food is not just a commodity but a gift of life and should not be dissipated or wasted.

The systematic transformation in all aspects can lead to horizontal spread and further scaling up of Food Sovereignty, which includes these four aspects of change.

  • Ecological: Waste and water management to achieve Sustainable Development Goals within particular territories.
  • Economic: Introducing unbiased and just forms of economic organization for farmers and peasants and also enhancing their security in the sector.
  • Political: It basically involves increasing the gender participation in the reciprocal co-production of knowledge, institutions and policies for the democratic and fair governance of food systems.
  • Search for new modernity: It includes repudiating the notion of progress as an ever-expanding process of commodification of nature and social relations, which leads to exploiting nature to its very core. Also trying our level best to fulfil our desired goals and aspirations.

Building its premise on the La Via Campesina, there was a food sovereignty movement in the United Kingdom in July 2012. Over 100 farmers, co-operative society workers, campaigners, activists and community gardeners from all parts of the UK participated in a weekend of discussions, action planning and skill sharing. Since then, a number of organizations have come up like the Landworkers’ Alliance, Community Supported Agriculture UK, Whole Food Action, etc.

Nepal establishes the National Food and Food Sovereignty Act, which ensures the citizens’ right to food, food security, and food sovereignty. This act provides that the Government of Nepal will work in collaboration with the district and state governments to ensure principles enshrined in food sovereignty and food security, keeping in mind the limited availability of resources and means. 

Food Sovereignty in India

Food sovereignty allows the communities to have control over the production, distribution and consumption of food. The movement for food sovereignty allows the workers, farmers, consumers and even the activists to come together and fight for a cause. Food sovereignty is clearly seen as a radical alternative to conventional food and agricultural development. Over the past two decades, this concept has moved from the margin of a community to be a centre of discussions in the international forum. Even India has had its own food sovereignty movements. 

Food Sovereignty remains pertinent today and is evident in many aspects of daily cultural, social, and physical life and counters the colonial past that has long devastated communities. The issue of food sovereignty has always been a pertinent one. Although Indians are so connected with the food at the same time, there is little food sovereignty prevalent in the country. Neither the producer nor the consumer is aware of the safety aspects of the food and the dire consequences of its ignorance.

The food sovereignty movements in India started in the early 20th century. Manipur has had a history of two historic people’s democratic movements against artificial food scarcity. One in December 1939, popularly known as Anisuba Lopi Nan or 2nd Women Agitation. Nupi Lan, which means women’s war in Manipuri is one of the important movements in the history of Manipuri women. It sowed the seeds of new economic and political reforms for a new Manipur in the early 1940s. The role of Manipuri women in the agrarian economy is a crucial one to reckon and they protested for agrarian and economic reforms in stringent policies made by the ruler of Manipur. Their movement which started as an agitation against the banning of rice export later on led to constitutional, political, and economic reforms in Manipur.

And the next movement started on August 27, 1965, popularly known as Chaklam Khongchat (Hunger Marchers’ day). This day is observed under the aegis of All Manipur Students’ Union. This movement was the first instance of a public upheaval against the tyranny of the regime in which the students’ community alone takes the lead. At that time, the Public Distribution System was controlled by the Civil Supply Officer and due to an erroneous system of distribution adopted by the then administration, the most essential foodstuff, rice was not available in the market. This created a sense of public fear in the minds of people. So the students of the AMSU met with a view to discuss the same. But when they reached the CC’s residence, they were denied entry and three of the leaders were shot dead. This led to the non-violent agitation of students.

Food Sovereignty or Anna Swaraj is the right and freedom to grow diverse and nutritious food and also have access to safe, affordable and healthy food at our convenience. Food Sovereignty tends to promote the consumers and producers rather than multinational corporations making profits. Food Sovereignty grows from a household to a community, the regional and the national level. Navdanya is one of those organizations which has led the national and international movement for biosafety and against the disastrous consequences of using Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs). They work alongside citizens’ movements, grassroots organizations, NGOs, governments, and have made considerable contributions to the Convention on Biological Diversity and Biosafety Protocol.

Navdanya promotes bio-organic farming which further promotes food sovereignty and food and nutritional security. It also promotes the farmer’s income and their sense of security. Since 1991, it has been working against Genetically Modified crops and making the people aware of its harmful effects. Their motto has been Freedom from Genetically Modified (GM) crops. Since 1997, it has kept track of the GM related activities and its growth in India and has also conducted field surveys and has proved several companies fallacious. It has filed a PIL in 1999 against the US seed giant MONSANTO and Indian authorities for the illegal and unwarranted ways by which GMs have been introduced in India and field trials were conducted which proved that there was a gross violation of environmental laws. It has been working with other organizations as well as demanding the government to fulfil their obligations towards Indian farmers, Indian producers and consumers and also take care of the environment and maintain the ecological balance.

Even in the midst of such devastation, there have been seeds of resistance and assertion by Adivasis, Dalits, peasants and pastoralists. And one such site of resistance is the Food Sovereignty Alliance of India. It was established in 2013 to build unanimity towards a common vision of food sovereignty whilst protecting sovereign rights to food, the rights of Mother Earth and that of future generations. Their common plan includes democratic governance of resources like land, water, forests, and territories; nurturing life in our soils and producing culturally appropriate, healthy and agro-ecological crops and the right of consumers to decide what to consume; a reciprocal system of co-sharing of labour, knowledge and produce; empowering local food markets that connect consumers and producers and diversification and revival of food crops. 

The members of the Food Sovereignty Alliance have evolved a mutual strategy to assert their visions of sovereignty: 

  • In the Adivasi areas of Telangana and Andhra Pradesh, Adivasi communities have organized themselves under a collective voice- ‘Adivasi Aikya Vedika’ – and asserting their rights to their homeland and territories by invoking customary laws, and community and habitat rights. Industrial production also took place in these areas. For example, in Mahboobnagar, people were lured by government schemes and started producing GM crops and cotton. But they soon realised that there was a decline in food production and soil fertility plummeted and the number of honey bees also drastically reduced. Through critical reflection and discussion, the community mapped their seasonal food cycles, flora, fauna, and biodiversity. The cycle was a visual method that helped them in establishing their relationship with the forests and was also used as a way to track climate change impacts. This process inspired those who cultivated cotton to again start producing food crops.
  • The Dalit Mahila Sangham in the Chittoor district of Andhra Pradesh has been fighting for the right to land. They assert that once the land is in their hands, they will nurture the land agro-ecologically through their wisdom and practice to build soil health, their strong community knowledge and re-establish food diversity. This has helped them to strengthen their fight against patriarchy, violence and discrimination.
  • The Deccani Gorrela Mekala Pempakadarula Sangham has organized itself to protect the unique black-wool Deccani sheep breed, critical for shepherding livelihoods in the region. In the late 90s, the government introduced the heavier and faster-growing Nellore sheep breed into the Deccani Flocks resulting in a mixed breed with no wool. Since then, they have focused on reviving the breed through convincing the mixed-breed owners to replace these Nellore rams with Deccani rams. Their core assertion to food sovereignty also involves defending their grazing rights, asking to stop the cutting of acacia trees, sustaining their common property grazing resources and also pressurizing the government to stop the privatization of the healthcare of animals.
  • In 2011, the Sri Gopi Rythu Sangham in Andhra Pradesh, decided to resist the dominance of corporate dairy processors, by organizing their own milk market. The Sangham members collectively decide the milk prices and also grow diverse food crops like millets, pulses, oilseeds, and vegetables. After keeping them for their own, they sell the surplus in the market.

Also, a food safety movement called India for Safe food expects the farmers, consumers and the government to work together and ensure that people have access to safe food, free of any toxicity. It is headed by ASHA, Alliance for Sustainable and Holistic Agriculture, an informal network of hundreds of organizations and individuals across 20 states. 

The status of food sovereignty in India is still not good despite these efforts. The farmers have no land or very little land to grow on. They don’t produce a surplus to sell in the market, therefore, they have meagre incomes. And also they don’t enjoy food security. They are always tempted by the thought of producing cash crops rather than food crops and even the customers do not enjoy food sovereignty. The customers do not have a wide variety of choices. All the products today which are available in the market are either adulterated or sub-standard goods, where quality is compromised. There are, however, several steps taken by the government to ensure food sovereignty. 

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Steps taken by the Government

The National Food Security Act (NFSA) is an important law that is supposed to guarantee the right to food to every citizen as well as to ensure food sovereignty in the country. Food sovereignty and food security require that the government procure food grains from farmers at fair prices based on Minimum Support Price (MSP), to provide to the poor. Farmers’ rights to fair prices are therefore structural in the Food Security Act. Merely being a promise in the year 2009, the act has come a long way from its earlier versions. It, for instance, has prioritized vulnerable groups such as children under the age of 6 and pregnant women encouraging the allocation of balanced diets. It has also widened its ambit by including millet, a coarse grain, in the list of its food grains.

The main problem with the act was its highly centralized Public Distribution System (PDS). This act tends to take some more progressive steps like decentralization of PDS and also prioritization of Panchayats, Self Help Groups (SHGs) and Co-ops and the establishment of storage facilities at the block, district and the state level.

The bill, unlike its previous versions, doesn’t mention the general category, but clearly marks a distinction between the 67 per cent and the rest of the population. It uses the Above Poverty Line (APL) and Below Poverty Line (BPL) classification. 

Decentralization of PDS also requires the hand to hand reforms in the agricultural sector. The bill mentions some of the agricultural reforms and the secured interest of small and marginal farmers. In the interest of food security, every village will be able to produce several crops in an agro-ecologically and sustainable manner. 

There are several examples of decentralized PDS. The Chattisgarh PDS order 2004 shifted the task of management of ration shops to community organizations like SHGs and Panchayats from the hands of private dealers. All ration shops were either moved into Panchayat or PDS buildings. These steps helped fill the loopholes in the distribution of foodgrains and ensured greater accountability and transparency in the system.

The Jan Jagrit Adivasi Dalit Sangathan (JADS) and Right to Food Campaign, for example, has advocated zonation. This scheme advocated dividing the country into different zones and encouraged that food grains must be procured, stored and distributed in the same zone in which the production of grains takes place. In case of any shortage, grains can be procured from the adjacent zones and central zones should be accessed only in case of a calamity. But decentralization doesn’t mean the end of government’s responsibility. The government would still have to procure grains, offer a reasonable MSP, create storage facilities and support the ration shops. Also, it means that the state delegates power to the people, which allows them to play a greater role in the decision-making process.

The government has also taken several other steps like starting schemes like Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, which provides guaranteed employment to workers for 100 or more days. Also, it extends reasonable MSP to the farmers after their procurement. It also ensures that the consumers receive unadulterated and standard goods by establishing FSSAI to check the quality of the products. Also, supporting organic farming in all the states so that they can achieve greater ecological balance. 

Steps taken by the government to face the unprecedented challenge of COVID-19 

Even during the COVID-19 Pandemic, the government responded with measures to support food security and food sovereignty. Crop specific measures regarding the harvesting and post-harvesting operations are advised. They are also focusing on rabi crops as their harvesting season is round the corner. Responsibilities are assigned to the agencies at the local level that would ensure the smooth movement of agricultural produce and related machinery to restore farming activities. And even an economic stimulus plan of 20 lakh crores was announced to help all the sectors of the economy and especially the vulnerable groups so that they can survive this tempest.

Public-Private partnership at various levels has proved to be quite effective. This partnership will enable policymakers to improve the role of multi-stakeholders involved in the food system to safeguard the life of vulnerable groups. Also, the inspection of perishable goods like fish and meat products, and vegetables were performed by local-level food inspectors to ensure the distribution and consumption of unadulterated goods, on a daily basis. Also, the government, to ensure nutritious meals for children, has instructed Anganwadi centres to deliver mid-day meals to the children. One such measure to ensure food security in the state was the setting up of community kitchens all over the state. Even special officials are hired to perform the functions. District Administrators were given the task for monitoring of local food assistance programmes, while the local representatives looked over distribution and logistics. 

Kerala, one of the worst-hit states by the pandemic has taken several steps and has once again set an example for the whole nation. The Kerala Government announced free ration for all for a month through the Public Distribution System. It also made a special effort by the initiation of the distribution of food kits. The Defence Food Research laboratory based in South India is specifically designed to deal with calamities. Their well-established infrastructure is designed to ensure that tonnes of ready to eat meals are produced within a frame of a few hours with longer shelf lives.

Reforms and suggestion

Although the bill ensures several provisions for the establishment of food sovereignty and food security, it still is mum about ensuring the safety of farmer’s livelihood, offering reasonable MSP after the procurement of grains and increasing food production- which are quintessential elements of food security. The bill continues the inequitable approach in distribution, preferring a Targeted Public Distribution System over a universal one, therefore, targeting only 67 per cent of the total population. In contrast to the earlier versions, the latest version only mentions the priority category and Antyodaya category which covers over 25 million extremely poor households. But the APL and BPL classification overlooks sizeable evidence against the targeted population, which is replete with omission and commission, and also breeds corruption. 

One of the main problems with the NFSA is that it only tends to answer questions relating to the PDS. Initially, it was introduced for the universal supply of cereals and later evolved for price stabilization in the urban markets. It later evolved for poverty alleviation. But its focus on procuring rice and wheat has surely encouraged the farmers to grow these but has shifted the focus from the production of other crops. The exclusion of alternative food grains along with pulses and oilseeds has had serious implications on the agricultural scenario. This has led to the virtual stagnation of pulses and millet cultivation. These crops are also essential for energy and have tremendous nutritional value, but neglect of these crops has led to a serious consequence on our energy intake. The solution for this can be an equal focus on the procurement of every crop. 

Another problem with the Act is its highly centralized Public Distribution System. PDS is highly centralized in its procurement, storage and distribution. For example, the crops produced in Punjab are procured by the Food Corporation of India and later distributed in Jharkhand. So, the duration in which it is procured and distributed leads to the rotting of these crops. So, the establishment of decentralized PDS would alleviate these problems. 

To increase crop production, the government should start monetary incentives to promote traditional, biodiverse agricultural systems. The agrarian reforms should encourage more small scale farmers to grow a variety of crops. For this, they have to address the extremely low earnings of the people involved in agriculture. This NFSA bill mentions decentralized storage facilities at the block, state, and district levels. The storage facility could be created out of locally available materials like mud, cow dung, and ash. 

In order to ensure food sovereignty, the government should extend reasonable MSPs to the farmers so that they can be incentivized on producing more. The extreme centralization of the PDS has led to a deterioration in the quality of food products. So the decentralization of the Public Distribution System will lead to a reduced distance between the place of storage and the place of distribution, leading to less perishability of food crops. Also, the government must ensure more transparency and accountability in the ration system. Usually, the ration crops are withheld by the private shopkeepers, which leads to deprivation of poor people. So, the state and the central government must ensure that the ration shops function accordingly and they don’t resort to malpractices. Also, the government must ensure the consumers have a wide variety to choose from. Usually, the products which are available in the market are sub-standard adulterated goods, leaving the people with a little to choose from. Therefore, the products must go through a strict quality check so as to ensure that the products are at par with the quality. 

Also, food sovereignty means that the crops are produced agro-ecologically without harming the environment and maintaining the balance. So, the people and even the government must ensure that the production is done in such a way the environmental balance is not endangered and the sustainability is maintained. For example, the Green revolution was highly criticized on the ground that it used a high-yielding variety of seeds and pesticides which diminished the soil fertility and adulterated the crops. So, the producers must ensure that they use organic manure and fewer fertilizers in producing crops. Also, the level of the water table and other sources must also be maintained. 

Conclusion

Food Sovereignty is one such measure that ensures that the consumers and producers are prioritized before the profit-making multinational corporations and organizations. It ensures that the producers produce, retain, distribute, and consume in a healthy and culturally appropriate manner and the consumers have a choice to choose from these options. It also ensures that these steps maintain the ecological balance and use agro-ecological methods to do so. 

References

  • http://usfoodsovereigntyalliance.org/what-is-food-sovereignty/
  • https://viacampesina.org/en/food-sovereignty/
  • https://leisaindia.org/seeds-of-resistance-for-food-sovereignty/

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