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Breaking old barriers and building new alliances for Food Justice in India and globally

by Oxfam | July 16, 2012

This blog post was written by Biraj Swain (Lead-GROW/Food Justice Campaign, Oxfam India and co-editor cum author of the Bulletin), Prof Lawrence Haddad (Director-Institute of Development Studies, Sussex and lead Editor of the Bulletin) and M Kumaran (Programme Coordinator-Food Justice, Oxfam India and author of the Bulletin) 

The way we speak of food has changed a great deal across the past 100 years. It is only at the World Food Summit in 1996, though, that international leaders agreed on the need to define more clearly the right to food as a universal human right. Since then, national, international and non-governmental institutions, as well as academics and social activists, have increasingly engaged with this basic and fundamental entitlement. Reacting to famines (as a moral imperative) was also the very foundation of Oxfam as an organization when it was born in 1942, and has been since its global mark to many. 

For the past 15 years, food has also emerged (under a rights-based perspective) as an increasingly complex debate: the concerns about famines, emergency relief and technology-driven green revolutions have been overtaken by discussions on state failures to deliver public distribution programs, the discriminatory biases these programs perpetuate, issues of legal entitlements to land use and land ownership by men and women farmers, climate change, domestic and international price volatilities and the role of non-governmental and social actors – from the media to INGOs, farmer’s networks and social movements. In other words, the debate shifted from concerns about starvation and subsistence towards notions of dignity and justice.

The likely passing of the National Food Security Bill in the Indian parliament in the on-going parliamentary session provides a timely moment to draw and reflect on these debates and envision a number of ways forward. 

Twenty-one leading authors and commentators have joined hands with Oxfam India and the Institute of Development Studies, Sussex to put together the special Bulletin ‘Standing on the Threshold: Food Justice in India’. From the father of India’s green revolution, MS Swaminathan, to public intellectual CP Chandrasekhar and the Supreme Court Commissioners on Right to Food, NC Saxema and Harsh Mander, the authors featuring in the Bulletin agree that the approval of the National Food Security Bill is an important step forward for India, but that–on its own–it can do little.  India has one of the highest rates of child malnutrition in the world, very severe infant mortality rates and the evidence on land grabbing is becoming increasingly worrying.  This gloomy picture is the result of complex institutional failures, gaps in legal frameworks and lack of political will at the central and state level as well as weak monitoring mechanisms for existing public distribution programs. 

If India's second green revolution is to contribute to an accelerated reduction of poverty, hunger and malnutrition, it undoubtedly has to be a Government-led project.  Far from being limited and old-fashioned, the Government’s price policies, legal entitlement system, public distribution and natural resource management policies are key to reaching the poorest of the poor. In the short run the Bill will have to rely on the PDS and ICDS programmes.  But as the authors of the papers show food, nutrition and agriculture programmes such as these are not cutting through deep-seated discriminatory practices (in society as much as within state institutions), they are reinforcing them.  Stronger, transparent monitoring by accountable state agencies is an absolute must if this is to be avoided say contributors Mamgain and Diwakar, Swain and Kumaran.

Food security is about having access to food that supports a healthy diet but it is also about reducing the risks of losing that access.  Everyone must be empowered to take action and be vigilant.  A core principle must be gender equality in rights and in the ability to claim rights, rights such as those to land ownership and use.  A halt on new land acquisition is needed until a way of estimating and compensating for social, economic and environmental costs is in place, particularly with regards to tribal communities for whom the right to the land is still uncertain. National mainstream media also have a crucial role to play: the most common references to food by them still happens as restaurant reviews, food festivals and cooking and dieting (!) books.  The media has to be the herald of risks to food security and of the slowness of response by the authorities.  

Finally, the biggest  uncertainty of all is the variation in growing conditions and disease patterns that climate change will bring. India has the opportunity to lead climate negotiations so that they are compatible with the promotion of food security and the reduction of malnutrition.  But first it has to get its own house in order by making sure national climate and energy policies reflect the concerns of poor people, including farmers and fishermen.  In sum, putting access and equity at the heart of debates on climate, natural resources, institutional accountability and agriculture remains an urgent priority. 

Now that most recognize that the future will belong to nations with grains and not guns, and that India has enough grains for all, we need to open and expand our thinking on what can be done, and to build a future where everyone on the planet always has enough to eat to promote good health. 

The Bulletin proves to be a further important step in this age-long battle for humanity’s dignity across borders, and it is important that Oxfam India and its Food Justice campaign, the youngest and first Southern affiliate of the Oxfam International family, is leading the way. 

For more information, watch Oxfam India's Standing on the Threshold video or see Oxfam India's Facebook page.