Lessons from India’s food safety nets & response to COVID-19

by Bishow Parajuli - 22 January, 2021, 12:00 2645 Views 0 Comment

2020 marks not just a watershed moment for humanity in terms of health, social and economic disruption caused by the Coronavirus pandemic but also one of the most challenging periods for the developmental gains that the world leaders and institutions have made over decades towards ending poverty and hunger.

Living with the virus for close to a year, nations and communities have seen not just the worst aspects of the pandemic but have also seen validation of some of the longstanding humanitarian values that will help us survive and will enable us to build back better.

Hunger and food security are two of the most basic and cross-cutting agendas that are critical for attaining all other rights and entitlements. Like everything else, the Coronavirus has made the situation of hunger grim across the world and particularly in areas and communities that are most vulnerable.  The livelihoods of millions of people have been compromised, and many more millions are likely to be hungry because of the pandemic’s impact on economies, job loss, disruption of supply chains, production systems, and access to aid and food support. The UN World Food Programme (WFP) has estimated that COVID-19 will increase the number of people facing acute food insecurity around the world – up to 265 million in 2020, up by 130 million. Over 690 million people go to bed hungry every night.

The Nobel Peace Prize for 2020 has been conferred on WFP for its contribution to bettering conditions for peace in conflict-affected areas and for acting as a driving force in efforts to prevent the use of hunger as a weapon of war and conflict.

The pandemic has also highlighted the interconnectedness and importance of an equitable, healthier, and resilient global food system. Though we are still grappling to understand the long-term impacts, this crisis presents an opportunity to rethink the food system and how we should produce, distribute, and consume food.

We must not forget that the food systems and agriculture are under strain due to Climate Change, increasing risk especially among ecologically vulnerable communities, and ecologically sensitive geographies.  At a broader level, it tells us to continue with a systemic approach to food systems, with local, national, regional, and global integration.

The WFP believes that three pillars of intervention are central to fixing food system challenges, especially in the COVID19: National social protection systems; Basic service delivery, and Resilient Food Systems.

Coming to India’s response immediately after the outbreak and subsequent lockdowns, it will not be an overstatement to say that the India Government acted swiftly and decisively to avert hunger and food insecurity. It also worked with civil society and institutions to ensure that the most vulnerable and get access to food. Massive progress in agriculture and food self-sufficiency over the years and a good stock of food reserve has helped govt for quick intervention in food support.

WFP has a long history of 50 years of close cooperation with the govt of India and the programmes have evolved over the years with India’s self-sufficiency. It works closely with the national and state governments strengthening and augmenting food safety nets, building capacity, and scaling innovation. The Indian Government’s comprehensive response, building on one of the world’s largest food safety net by the way of its existing mammoth Public Distribution System and Targeted Public Distribution System, is an example of how the understanding of vulnerability and the dynamic need of migrants on the move can be taken on board while expanding the remit of eligibility, to avert a food crisis.

To underline how the existing food safety nets with an additional focus on response to COVID-19, ensuring no one is left behind, one can look at its school feeding or mid-day meal scheme, where the central and state government work with various measures in providing mid-day meals or food security allowance of food grains and its cooking cost to fulfill nutritional requirements of eligible 100 million children under the scheme.

One might recall the stirring visual of India’s massive migrant workers population moving after the lockdowns. Since the onset of the pandemic, huge efforts were made to provide cash, food rations, and cooked meals to millions of migrant laborers and urban wage earners, the poor, and various additional vulnerable groups. The government also unveiled an economic package to help alleviate the distress for small farmers, migrant workers, small traders, and self-employed people. State govt were joined by private sectors and community volunteers to play a proactive role in provisioning funding, an adjustment in procedures and grass root level support so that no one goes hungry.

Moving towards a post-COVID-19 India, I would like to offer five key ideas, which can also benefit other countries:

There is a need for expansion of coverage of social safety nets to ensure that the large number of vulnerable people who are currently out of food-based social safety-nets are all included in the food system across all states. The ‘One Nation, One Card’ is a great example which India has initiated to include a mobile workforce from one state to another.

Diversification of the food basket of social safety-nets and feeding behaviors is needed to ensure that all key nutrient requirements are fulfilled. Ideas such as Nutri-garden/kitchen gardens, micronutrient supplementation, and fortification along with direct cash distribution will create better nutritional outcomes.

A monitoring system for food and nutrition security as the recent destress movement of migrants, loss of livelihood food and nutrition security are likely to get adversely impacted.

Integration of tracking systems of the three food-based safety nets under the National Food Security Act through the aggregation of data on beneficiaries to promote complementarity and further enhancement of their effectiveness and their impact.

Supporting agriculture and allied sectors so that the farming system continues to run uninterrupted and long-term food security is continued to be ensured.

Food entitlement framework, like one in India and in some countries of Africa, needs to be applied. We see laws on the right to adequate food in Mali & the United Republic of Tanzania, similarly, there are draft laws under discussion in Malawi, Mozambique, South Africa, and Uganda.

Development solutions and experiences from India, as well as other developing countries, have the potential to enhance and accelerate the eradication of hunger and malnutrition, the shared learnings of national legislations on food and nutrition security could be a great starting point for the shared learnings between Africa and India in the post-COVID-19 era.

At the service delivery level, the challenge is how to bypass an inefficient network of intermediaries and plugging the leakages in government subsidies. India and a few other African countries have shown the way forward with the use of a biometric system of identity and targeting.

Each country has responded to the ongoing crisis based on specific contexts to manage the interplay of components of production, processing, distribution, consumption, and waste management. There is a need to examine these in the post-COVID-19 era.

One of the most promising areas of south-south collaboration is AgriTech entrepreneurship and using low-carbon agriculture practices which will not only create greater efficiency in the use of resources that are scarce in rainfed subsistence farming but also help countries in Africa to leapfrog into the future. India provides a great example of a success story.

To make the world free of hunger by 2030 and deliver promise for Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), governments, citizens, civil society organizations, and the private sector must collaborate to invest, innovate and create lasting solutions in sustainable agriculture.

Bishow Parajuli
Author is WFP Representative and the Country Director in India

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