Food security on paper, food subsidies cut drastically in reality

Dr Venkatesh Sundaram

It was recently announced that India ranked 94 among 107 nations in the Global Hunger Index 2020, faring much worse than its neighbours Bangladesh (75), Myanmar (78) and Pakistan (88), and far more poorly than Sri Lanka (64) and Nepal (73).  GHI scores are based on the values of four component indicators: undernourishment (share of the population with insufficient caloric intake), child wasting (share of children under-five who have low weight for their height, reflecting acute undernutrition), child stunting (share of children under-five who have low height for their age, reflecting chronic undernutrition), and child mortality.

How is it that our country, with such rich natural resources and abundant agriculture, is faring worse off in this crucial index compared to even its ‘poorer’ neighbours? Not only that, we have one of the most impressive portfolios of programmes and policies in nutrition in the books. So why is it that we are competing with our historically impoverished countries in sub – Saharan Africa to make it to the bottom of the list?

Food Security Act 2013  – food security as a right !

The Parliament of India enacted the Food Security Act on July 5, 2013. According to the website of the Department of Food and Public Distribution, which is responsible for implementing this Act, it marks a “paradigm shift in the approach to food security from welfare to rights based approach”. The Act legally entitles up to 75% of the rural population and 50% of the urban population to receive subsidised food grains under Targeted Public Distribution System (T – PDS). About two thirds of the population is thus covered under the Act to receive highly subsidised food grains.

Underspending of food subsidy budgets

In 2020-21, the Department has been allocated Rs 1,22,235 crore, 6% higher than the revised estimate of 2019-20. With such an allocation, one would hardly expect that a significant percentage of the people (14%) is severely undernourished.

But, in 2018-19, the Department utilised only 61% of the allocation, while Rs 67,081 crore remained unspent.  Due to this underspending trend, in 2020-21, the Department’s allocation is Rs 18,285 crore less than what it spent five years ago (2015-16). Thus, there is that much less money to help subsidise food security of the very poor in our country.

Drastic reduction in food subsidy in practice

The estimated expenditure for 2019-20 has reduced by 40% from Rs 1,92,240 crore at the budgeted stage to Rs 1,15,240 crore!  This is due to a Rs 75,532 crore cut in the allocation to food subsidy for the year 2019-20!

The subsidy is given to the Food Corporation of India (FCI) and the states of India for procuring food grains from farmers at government notified prices and selling them at lower subsidised prices (known as Central Issue Prices), under the National Food Security Act, 2013. The subsidy also covers the storage cost incurred by FCI in maintaining buffer stocks to ensure food security in the country.

The expenditure on food subsidy increased from Rs 63,844 crore in 2010-11 to Rs 1,39,419 crore in 2015-16.  However, since 2016-17, spending on food subsidy by the Department has comparatively decreased, as a major part of the funds allocated for food subsidy remain unspent (40% of the budget allocation was not utilised in 2018-19).  This underspending by the Department of Food and Public Distribution has increased over the years, even though the actual requirement of funds for food subsidy is quite higher than the amount it spends.

Figure 1: budget allocation and actual expenditure on food subsidy 2010 – 2020 Sources:  Expenditure Budget, Union Budgets (2011-21).

When the actual expenditure on food subsidy is falling over the years, is it really any wonder that our country is faring so badly on the Hunger Index front? Moreover, there are other reasons why the diet of poorer people does not include sufficient proportions of protein sources like pulses, eggs, fish, and meat (see box). Consequently, there is greater imbalance in their diets and improper nutrition as a result.

All this goes to show that while food security is supposed to be a right according to the government and the law, in practice the Central Government has been reducing food subsidy drastically, leading to more malnutrition and even starvation. The Indian people, like people everywhere, need food security to be guaranteed as a right, and the government has duly enacted the Food Security Bill 2013. But has been reducing the spending on food subsidy over the years – leading to millions of children and people remaining hungry and undernourished.

Promising what the people yearn for, and doing the opposite in practice, is unfortunately a hallmark of Indian ruling circles since 1947! The abysmal performance of our country in the World Hunger Index underscores the necessity to think about a political and social system where people can live with dignity and have their basic needs fulfilled. We need a political system where the rulers are indeed accountable to the people and are not able to escape making promises and enacting laws on paper but not fulfilling their commitments in practice.


  1. PS research paper
  2. 2. Budget allocations: Union budgets 2010 and thereafter (880 w)
Nutritional Balance and Imbalance in farm production

Hunger and undernutrition cannot and should not be fixed by mere calorie provision. Attention must be paid to making balanced healthy diets which are climate-friendly, affordable, and accessible to all.

Although cereals or food grains contain only 10% protein, their share as a percentage of the total protein intake has been over 50% in both rural and urban areas. Other foods such as meat and pulses contain more than 20% protein but contribute to only 15% of the total protein intake of the country.

Figure 2:  Percentage of crop production that was procured at MSP in 2016-17

The National Food Security Act, 2013 requires the central and state governments to undertake steps to diversify commodities distributed under PDS. Minimum Support Price (MSP) is the price at which the government agencies purchase farmers’ produce of certain notified crops.  Typically, MSP is higher than the market price and seeks to incentivise farmers to grow crops on which the support is offered.  As wheat and rice (paddy) are major food grains provided under the PDS, the focus of procurement is on these crops.  While a significant proportion of these two crops are procured at MSP, there is extremely limited procurement of other crops.

This skews the production of crops in favour of wheat and paddy and does not offer an incentive for farmers to produce other items such as pulses. Consequently, the lower availability and higher prices of pulses make them out of reach of poorer people, leading to greater imbalance in their diets and improper nutrition as a result.

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