Repairing India’s Food System Is About Access, Not Scarcity

Sacks of rice stored in the open in Ranwan, India, have rotted and suffered other damage. (Photo: Manpreet Romana for The New York Times)

Today’s New York Times article about India’s “paradox of plenty” is a painful reminder that hunger is acutely political.

The article boils the problem down to this:

“Spurred by agricultural innovation and generous farm subsidies, India now grows so much food that it has a bigger grain stockpile than any country except China, and it exports some of it to countries like Saudi Arabia and Australia. Yet one-fifth of its people are malnourished — double the rate of other developing countries like Vietnam and China — because of pervasive corruption, mismanagement and waste in the programs that are supposed to distribute food to the poor.”

Clearly, India doesn’t struggle with food scarcity; it struggles with food access and inequitable distribution. The crux of the problem is about who gets what and why; which populations are able to access government schemes and which populations struggle against stigma, corruption and bureaucratic procedures that limit their access to needed services.

Marginalized populations, including rural indigenous women and migrant workers, are often shut out of the food system in India and elsewhere in the developing world. This is why the World Food Programme (WPF) often provides food or cash vouchers to women instead of men. But the WPF’s approach isn’t the ultimate answer. India needs to have strong internal mechanisms of accountability so that its vulnerable citizens do not suffer the consequences of false promises and neglect.

One organization in India that is working to shift the power structure and create change from the ground up is Kislay, an AJWS grantee that promotes the rights of urban communities in slum areas of New Delhi. The organization’s programs focus on housing, education, the regulation of employment and social security for domestic workers and, most urgently, on the right to food. Kislay uses a participatory theatre technique—”theatre of the oppressed”—to show Delhi slum dwellers how to advocate for their food rations and their right not to be evicted.

Such methods of community engagement and accountability have been essential to ensure that even progressive legislations, like the one being considered in India to address the challenge of food distribution, can achieve admirable goals.

Listen to AJWS’s executive vice president, Robert Bank, discuss Kislay’s work to achieve food justice.


Javid Syed and Jordan Namerow work for AJWS.