Food, farming and hunger

Sagari R Ramdas

The recent outrage against the estimated poverty level income of Rs 32 per day saw a re-examination of what it means to be poor, and what is needed to stave off hunger – that most insidious of killers. This article provides a background to the issue, allowing us to understand why hunger has become such a widespread problem in rural and urban India today.

Disparity between a tiny class of very wealthy Indians and a growing mass of human beings living in a permanent state of chronic hunger is deepening in India. In 2011, India has 55 dollar billionaires and about a 100,000 dollar millionaires according to Forbes’ global list of billionaires1. India’s near double digit GDP growth of the past decade along with a 300 million strong middle class marked as the new engine for global growth, stands in stark contrast to the uncontested fact that the number of Indians living in conditions of endemic hunger and malnutrition is growing2.

India has more hungry and undernourished people than any other country in the world, confirms the FAO Report on State of Food Insecurity in the World 2011. Nearly 224 million or 26.9% of the population was living in chronic hunger in 2006-20083. With rising food prices and food inflation, this alarming figure is very likely to have increased substantially. In South Asia, India is ranked 67 of 122 countries in the Global Hunger Index 2011 below all the other major South Asian countries. The Global Hunger Index is an average of (i) the proportion of the population that is undernourished where India scores 21%, (ii) the prevalence of underweight children under five, which is 43.5% for India and (iiii) proportion of children dying before the age of five, which is 6.6% for India. According to the UNICEF, 2009, 1/3rd of Indian women are underweight, and over half the married women are anemic. Poverty is the principal cause of hunger, and consequently, food insecurity. According to World Bank poverty estimates4, 75.6% of Indians earn less than $2 per day and 41.6% of the population lives below the international poverty line of USD 1.25 per day. All other international estimates, too indicate increasing and not decreasing poverty in India5,6,7. In the gender inequality index, India stands a miserable 122 among 138 countries, indicating persistent gender inequality8. The recent census 2011 points to a highly skewed sex ratio in the 0-6 yrs age group (914 girls for every 1,000 boys of the same age, or 75.8m girls and 82.9m boys) and reconfirms a growing bias against the girl child.

In 1979, a task force appointed by the Planning Commission of India defined the poverty line as a per-capita consumption expenditure level, which meets the average per-capita daily calories requirement of 2435 kcal in rural areas and 2095 kcal in urban areas. A key critique on the poverty measurement in India has been that current poverty lines do not correspond to these calorie consumption norms, resulting in a huge underestimation of the proportion of people living below the poverty line9,10,11. Thus, estimates of the number of people living below the poverty line in India ranges from the official figures of 37.2% in rural areas and 25.7% in urban areas, to 87% and 64.5 % in the former and the latter12,13,14,15,16,17,18. The poverty line is crucial as it determines who will be eligible and included in India’s policy of targeted subsidized food for the “poor”, and who will be excluded from the Public Distribution System (PDS), India’s biggest food-based intervention that aims to provide access to cheap food to households throughout the country.

The tragedy is that half of those who suffer from hunger in India today, are ironically those who grow our food: the small and marginal farmers who are the mainstay of Indian agriculture, and the rest are landless agriculture labour and casual labour and their families. Seventy per cent of Indians (700 million people) depend on agriculture as their primary source of livelihood19. Sixty nine per cent of India’s total area is described as dryland and 68% of agriculture is rainfed. Small farmers comprise 83.3% of the agriculturists, with an average land holding of less than 2 hectares, and own 41.14% of the total agriculture land. Sixty five per cent of the farmers in India, own only 20% of the total land, with an average holding size of 0.38 hectares. According to the 59th round of the National Sample Survey20, 11% of the rural households in India are landless. Of the female workforce, 75.38% is located in this sector. Agriculture and livestock rearing are intrinsically dependent on one another and the landless, small and marginal farmers own 75% of India’s livestock.

Deep food insecurity and hunger amongst those who grow our food is not because they don’t produce enough, or that our farmers lack the knowledge, skill and ability to grow food, or because of “over-population”, and the growing numbers to feed. The total food produced today is sufficient to provide every person on Earth with an adequate diet. Globally, available food per person increased almost 18.6% between the mid 1960s and 2007 to 2796 kcal21 per day per person, which meets the need of an average adult male. However, between 2007-2009, the number of hungry people grew globally by 150 million, an increase not linked to a decrease in food production but to steep increases in food prices that was triggered by increased oil prices, speculation and trading in food (as one would trade in stock and shares), and competition between food, fuel crops, and animal feed.

India was self-sufficient in food at the end of the 80s. There are clear political reasons for today’s massive agrarian and hunger crises. India was forced (as were most developing countries around the world in the 80s and 90s) by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and other wealthy countries of the world, to open up our hitherto closed agriculture markets, for import of highly subsidized food from the USA and EU, and in place of food, to bring in national policy changes, which would encourage farmers to produce cash crops such as coffee, tea, flowers, cotton, tobacco, for export. Known as Structural Adjustment Programs, (SAPs), they also required that governments cutback government spending in agriculture, ending price guarantees for farmers and consumers, modifying and closing down public food distribution systems, withdrawing input subsidies to farmers and withdrawing support for extension services. Fiscal policy reforms were brought in to reduce government expenditure in all key public services, such as health care, veterinary health, energy, housing, sanitation, water, transportation, research, extension, and pave the way for privatization of these essential services. The failure of our democracy is that regardless of which political party is in power, our elected representatives, have blindly followed these international pressures and diktat, and have failed to craft a political and economic system to meet our needs, and which will address our concerns. A key part of this structural adjustment program in India is aimed at reducing the numbers of people dependent on agriculture as their key source of livelihood from 80% to 40% – and the reality is there for all to see…

Two decades of structural adjustments, economic reforms and globalization in India since the 1990s, have been characterized by the withdrawal of State support to agriculture and the liberalization of markets, unleashing massive agrarian distress22. It has sought to transform small-peasant controlled sustainable mixed crop-livestock food-farming systems, into a corporate controlled industrial system of agriculture production. The self-sufficient small farmer who produced a diversity of food crops and seeds, and reared different domestic animals, is being forced to become either a “crop commodity cultivator” or an “animal commodity producer”, often in contract-farming “vertically integrated” tie-ups with agri-business corporations – typical of industrial agriculture modes of production. The change is evident in villages with more farmers exclusively cultivating mono-cropped cotton, paddy, sugarcane, or maize and soya as animal feed for factory farmed animals. Tractors are used to plough the land, and mechanized harvesters to harvest the crop, replacing animals and humans (agriculture labour). Fertilizers are used in lieu of animal manure, and pesticides to control the explosion of pests that accompany such unsustainable farming practices. The government, in nexus with corporations, has projected biotechnology and the so-called “ever-green revolution”, as the solution to the growing food crisis. Liberalizing land markets on the other end, has unleashed the explosion of the real estate markets, further squeezing out the farmers, who already in deep distress, are pushed to selling their lands. Acres upon acres of fenced agriculture fields witnessed along India’s flashy new highways are testimony to this unfolding agrarian disaster. Meanwhile, whilst farmers struggle to graze their animals on shrinking lands, we find a steady spurt of a new breed of landlords and “gentlemen livestock farmers” who have purchased massive quantities of land and are now investing in “goat/sheep/dairy/poultry farming”, either individually or in partnership with corporations.

So, even the much maligned goat, which Gandhi referred to as the “poor man’s cow”, whose owners have historically been hounded by the forest department and conservationist alike for destroying forests, is now silently slipping away from the hands of the poor and becoming the rich man’s asset.

According to the National Sample Survey (NSSO)23 of 2005, 48% of farmers in India are indebted and 40% of farmers want to quit farming. Over a quarter of a million farmers’ suicides occurred between 1995 and 201024. The period 2003-2010, witnessed a greater number of suicides than the preceding eight years, which is alarming as the total number of farmers declined significantly in the same period. Two- thirds of these suicides have occurred in five states: Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, and Chattisgarh25. Post neo-liberal reforms, farmers’ income rose by 0.28%, whereas the incomes in other sectors, rose by 4%. With massive decline in real agriculture wages and rising unemployment, people are unable to purchase food, indicative of growing food insecurity in the country26.

The average daily net per capita availability of foodgrain between 2005 and 2008 was a dismal 436 grams per Indian, less than 440 gms available in 1955-58. The consumption of pulses declined from 70 gms in 1955-58 to around 35 grams in 2005-0827. Rural households classified as “agricultural/other labour”, who did not get food everyday during the year was relatively high compared to other households. In urban areas, houses that belonged to the casual labour category had the highest percentage of not getting food everyday relative to other households28. In rural India, the agriculture labour category and in Urban India the casual labour category had lower levels of consumption of animal products (milk and milk products, eggs, meat and fish)29. In 1997, following the advice of the World Bank, the Government of India introduced the Targeted Public Distribution System (TPDS) in place of a universal PDS to curtail food subsidy. The income poverty line of the Planning Commission was used to demarcate ‘poor’ and ‘non-poor’ households and divide the entire population into below-poverty-line (BPL) and above-poverty-line (APL). The two groups are treated differently in terms of their eligibility for quantities of food and price of food. Several studies have pointed out how targeting has ended up excluding a whole lot of eligible citizens from accessing subsidized food, and ironically is also a major reason for the “overflowing” stockpiles of food in our public godowns30. In 2011, the Supreme Court of India, firmly reprimanded the Union Government that “in a country where admittedly people are starving, it is a crime to waste even a single grain,” and suggested that the grain be released to those who deserve it.

Eradicating hunger begins with creating viable communities, where people have control over their lives and livelihoods. It is about producing enough food and the right kind of food and making it available and accessible to all. Industrial Corporate controlled food production worldwide, has demonstrated its utter inability to solve the related problems of hunger and safe and sustainable production of food.

Industrial agriculture is unviable and unsustainable for several reasons:

  • There is exclusive focus on maximizing production and productivity of individual commodities and products.
  • It is completely dependent on fossil-fuel inputs, which are globally projected to be exhausted in 60-80 years (fertilizers, machines, pesticides).
  • It completely over-exploits scarce natural resources such as water.
  • It is a huge threat to agro-diversity, peoples’ livelihoods and knowledge (animal and plant genetics are controlled by companies. Farmers stop breeding their own breeds and saving their own seeds, they lose their knowledge once they stop applying their practices).
  • It needs more and more land and natural resources to sustain production, and is a major reason behind massive global land-grabs underway.
  • There is huge competition between land for food, feed, and fuels (e.g., maize).
  • There are huge social and environmental costs which are externalized and not priced on the market.
  • It is the reservoir of several new diseases (SARS, bird flu, swine flu) and the source of emergence of old diseases (e.g., Salmonella outbreak in USA).
  • It is the source of environmental pollution and a key driver of climate change.
  • It threatens smallholder livelihoods and pushes them out of production, thus enhancing hunger, as the farmers join the ranks of the “unemployed and under-employed”.

There is growing movement led by small farmers, indigenous people (adivasis), pastoralists, fisherfolk, workers, and citizens in India and around the world who are resisting this corporate take over of lives and livelihoods, who are fighting to take back control and governance of and re-establish democratic food-farming systems. We are working towards rebuilding food sovereignty, which is beautifully captured in the words of La Via Campesina (2007), the peasant’s movement which first introduced the concept internationally in 1996.

“Food sovereignty is the right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods, and their right to define their own food and agricultural systems. It puts those who produce, distribute and consume the food at the heart of food systems and policies rather than the demands of markets and corporations. It defends the interest and inclusion of the next generation. It offers a strategy to resist and dismantle the current corporate trade and food regime, and directions for food, farming, pastoral and fisheries systems determined by local producers. Food sovereignty priorities local and national economies and markets and empowers peasants and family farmer-driven agriculture, artisan fishing, pastoralist-led grazing and food production, distribution and consumption based on environmental, social and economic sustainability. Food sovereignty promotes transparent trade that guarantees just income to all people and the rights of consumers to control their food and nutrition. It ensures that the rights to use and manage our lands, territories, water, seeds, livestock and biodiversity are in the hands of those of us who produce food. Food sovereignty implies new social relations free of oppression and inequality between men and women, peoples, racial groups, social classes and generations.”


  1. Forbes, 2011.
  2. Asian Development Bank. (2010). Key Indicators for Asia and the Pacific 2010 (41st edition ed). Manila, Metro Manila, Phillipines: Asian Development Bank.
  3. Food And Agriculture Organisation. (2011). The State of Food Insecurity in the World. Rome, Italy: Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations: 46.
  4. International Fund for Agriculture Development. (2010). Rural Poverty Report 2011: New Realities, new challenges: new opportunities for tomorrows Generation. Rome, Italy: International Fund for Agriculture Development (IFAD).
  5. Alkira, S. a. (2010, July 1). India Country Briefing Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative (OPHI) Multidimensional Poverty Index Country Briefing Series. Retrieved 6 3, 2011, from
  6. International Fund for Agriculture Development. (2010). Rural Poverty Report 2011: New Realities, new challenges: new opportunities for tomorrows Generation. Rome, Italy: International Fund for Agriculture Development (IFAD).
  7. The Times of India. (2010, July 12). Indian states have more poor than 26 poorest African Nations. Retrieved July 13, 2011, from timesofindia:
  8. UNDP, 2010. Global Human Development Report.
  9. Jaya Mehta and Venkatraman, S. (2000, July 1-7). Poverty Statistics. Economic and Political Weekly, 35 (27).
  10. Sen, P. (2005, October 22-28). Of Calories and Things. Economic and Political Weekly, 40 (43).
  11. Srinivasan, T. (2007, October 13-19). Poverty Lines in India: Reflections after the Patna Conference. Economic and Political Weekly. P.Sen. (2005, October 22-28). Of Calories and Things. Economic and Political Weekly, 40 (43).
  12. Aasha Kapur Mehta, A. S. (2011). India Chronic Poverty Report: Towards Solutions andNew Compacts in a Dyanamic Context. Indian Institute of Public Administration, Chronc Poverty Research Centre. New Delhi: Indian Institute of Public Administration.
  13. Patnaik, U. (2010, January 23-29). Trends in Urban Poverty under Economic Reforms: 1993-94 to 2004-05. Economic and Politilcal Weekly, 45 (4).
  14. Government of India, Ministry of Rural Development. (2009). Report of the Expert Group to advise the Ministry of Rural Development on the methodology for conducting the Below Poverty Line (BPL) Census for 11th Five Year Plan. New Delhi: Government of India.
  15. Deaton and Dreze 2008.
  16. The Tendulkar Committee Report (2009).
  17. Saxena (2010).
  18. Ahmed A.U., V. H. (2007). The Worlds Most Deprived: Characteristics and Causes of Severe Poverty and Hunger. International Food Policy Research Institute. Washington DC: IFPRI.
  19. NSSO, 2006a
  21. P.Sainath. (2010, August 11th). Oliver Twist Seeks Food Security. The Hindu. Hyderabad, India: The Hindu.
  22. NSSO, 2005. Report No 496.
  23. The National Crime Records Bureau, 2011.
  24. The Hindu, October 29 2011, Hyderabad, India.
  25. ibid 18.
  26. Ibid 25
  27. (NSSO Report No. 466).
  28. ibid 3.
  29. ibid 8.

The author is co-director and a founder member of Anthra, a resource, training, research and policy advocacy collective in India, which works on livestock, people’s livelihoods, environment and social justice concerns in the larger context of food sovereignty. A veterinary scientist by profession, she has been working in this field since the past two decades. She can be reached at

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