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III. Approach to Food Security in China and India



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III. Approach to Food Security in China and India


China and India have “long placed food security high on their respective policy agendas”.54 Over the decades, both countries’ policies on food security have, in line with global trends, shifted from being predominantly pre-occupied with food availability, towards a greater emphasis on food access and more recently on food use through a greater focus on nutrition and health. The Green Revolution in India in 1960, and the introduction of the household responsibility system in China in 1979 resulted in significant increases in food production by the 1980s. Since then, both countries have adopted similar strategies, including input subsidies, public stockholding and minimum government procurement prices to maintain food availability and secure food self-sufficiency. However, when it comes to access to food, the two countries have applied different approaches..

In India, the right to food movement has gained momentum to active interventions by civil society and the courts, while the government has focused on ensuring access to food via a public distribution system that makes subsidized grains available to the poor. In contrast, in China where there is no legal right to food provided in either law or policy, access to food approaches have focused on the more expansive income transfer program, and a non-food based social safety net to help the poor. More recently, both countries have also paid greater attention to improving nutrition in securing food security.



A. Securing Food Availability


In line with the traditional focus on food availability, the overarching goal of both countries’ food policy has been to “achieve self-sufficiency for food grains”.55 As a result, both China and India have actively promoted grain production through input subsidies, public stockholding and government procurement prices. 56

1. India.— In India, the government promotes food availability by offering agricultural subsidies and providing market price support for food grains. Input subsidies make up the “most expensive instruments of India’s food policy.”57 The prices for fertilizers, electricity and irrigation water sold to farmers are set by the government of India and are generally lower than the market price charged. For example, in the 2008-9 the government’s fertilizer subsidy reached US$16.9 billion.58 The government also sets Minimum Support Prices, which seeks to ensure that remunerative prices are paid to growers for their produce in order to encouraging higher agricultural investment and production. Minimum Support Prices are announced and fixed each year based on the recommendations of the Commission for Agricultural Costs and Prices and cover 24 important crops.59 The Food Corporation of India has been set up since 1965 to undertake the procurement, storage, movement, transport and distribution of food grains. In addition, the government holds buffer stocks of food grains based on surpluses produced in good production years for use in case of situations of food scarcity which may arise from crop failures.60 These policies, coupled with the success of the Green Revolution which took place in the 1960-70s and introduced high-yield crop varieties and adopted modern agriculture techniques, has meant that India has become largely self-sufficient in food grain production for the past four decades and the “threat of famine has been eliminated.”61 This is no small feat for a country with more than 16 per cent of the global population, but only 2.5 per cent of the global land mass.62

2. China.— In China, food availability was a massive problem prior to the 1980’s. Following the 1978 economic reforms, the introduction of a household responsibility system in 1979 allowed farmers to sell surplus produce grown on their land allocated to them by the collective, once they met their centrally imposed quota of staple food and livestock production. This provided an incentive to individual farmers to expand and diversify their agricultural production. The reforms resulted in a rapid increased of staple food productivity, with vegetable production increasing six fold between 1978 and 2010.63 Food availability improved dramatically as collective farming and people’s communes were abandoned. 64

Like India, China’s current policy to ensure sufficient domestic food availability is focused on input based subsidies and market price support. Since 2004, direct transfers have been offered to grain producers with the dual aim of boosting grain production and increasing farmers’ income. The overall budget for subsidies are decided by the Central government who allocates funds across provinces based on regional grain supplies. Each province then re-allocates the funds to county level governments who distribute the subsidies to farmers through direct deposits into their bank accounts. The amount of subsidies received by farmers are based on either the actual grain sown area or contracted land and takes into consideration the historical planting area, yields and market supply. In 2006, the Comprehensive Direct Subsidy on Agricultural Inputs program was also adopted. Like the direct grain subsidy, the amount of money offered is also largely based on farmers’ contracted area.65

In contrast to India’s price based subsidies, which have been heavily criticized for their inefficiencies, China’s approach of using direct payments to transfer input subsidies has been seen to be “less distorting and more efficient”.66 The Chinese government also sets Minimum Procurement Prices, which have been in place for rice since 2004 and wheat since 2006. Prices are announced before each sowing season and are procured by China Grain Reserves Corporation (Sinograin). Procurement of grains are also closely linked to the country’s public grain stockholding system.67 In addition, China also provides other forms of support to grain production, including improved seed variety subsidies, subsidies for agricultural machinery and subsidized crop insurance schemes.68

As a result of these strategies, numerous sources have indicated that lack of food is currently not a problem in either China or India pointing to the sufficient calorie supply and lack of reliance on food imports. Apart from a dip in the early 2000s India’s calorie adequacy has been “fairly constant”, averaging 106% between 1990 and 2014, while “China’s average dietary supply adequacy has risen continuously from 106% in 1990-92 to 127% in the 2012-14 period.”69 Both countries have also become largely self-sufficient in terms of food grain production at the macro level. India has had “hardly any” food grain imports since the mid-1970s as food grain production in the country has increased from 50 million tonnes in 1950-51 to around 233.9 million tonnes by 2008-09.70 China’s grain production doubled between 1949 and the early 1990s and self-sufficiency of grain in terms of weight did not drop below 95 per cent between the 1980s until 1999,71 while it provided 4 per cent of the word’s agricultural and food exports in 2007.72 However the increasing demand for food and changing consumption habits has resulted in a decline in rates of grain self-sufficiency over the past decade.73

The state of food availability in China and India thus provide a reflection of the current global position where there is sufficient availability of food in the world to feed the entire world’s population. However, food demand is “only met in the aggregate, as there are profound disparities in access to food across geographic regions and across the spectrum of incomes at both the household and country levels”.74 The prevailing issue of food security thus must be understood “not in terms of how much food is produced, but rather, whether and how those in need gain access to that food.”75 Today, in China and India, much like the rest of the world, the challenges of ensuring their citizens have access to adequate and nutritious food are “exacerbated by unsustainable dietary patterns – both under- and over consumption – that in differing ways affect markets, health and the natural resource base.”76 To some extent, the cause of food security is no longer fundamentally food, but rather about “the extent to which [a] country’s marginalised populations are empowered with the rights, freedoms and capabilities that enable them to attain health and nourished lives.”77

B. Diverging Approaches to Ensuring Access to Food


The two countries apply “quite different approaches to address poor consumers’ access to food. India has adopted a Targeted Public Distribution System (TPDS) to make subsidized grains available to the poor, whereas China has implemented an income transfer program and non-food based social safety net to help the poor. In addition, following the 2007-8 world food price crisis, the right to food movement has gained momentum in India and is now influencing the government’s food security policy, 78 while China there is no legal right to food provided in either law or policy.

1. India.— In India, the “most important intervention made by the government of India towards achieving food security” has been the Public Distribution System. 79 The Public Distribution System is a rationing mechanism, first established in 1939 as a war-time rationing measure, which entitles poor households to a specific quantity of food and non-food staples, such as rice, wheat, edible oil, kerosene and sugar, at subsidized prices. Closely intertwined with the state’s Minimum Support Prices program, the Food Corporation of India, which oversees both programs, buys food grains from farmers at allocated prices. Food grains are then sold on to consumers at subsidized prices through a network of 460,000 Fair Price shops. Up until 1997, the Public Distribution System was “universal” in most parts of the country and was available to all households, both urban and rural, with a residential address. Households were given a ration card which entitled them to buy a fixed ration of selected commodities. The system has since switched to a “targeted” approach and access is now limited to income-poor households. The system now follows a two-tiered pricing structure. Households classified as below the poverty line continue to receive rice and grains at highly subsidized prices which are far below the market value. Households which are classified as above the poverty line, receive a lower amount of rice and grains are supplied at a much higher cost which is closer to their market price. The switch to a “targeted” system has been seen as “extremely detrimental to the nation’s food security.”80 It has not only led to “high rates of exclusion of needy households from the system,”81 but has negatively impacted the viability of fair price shops, whose success relies on economies of scale as the transportation and distribution of smaller quantities of commodities make the shops less economically viable.82 Furthermore, it is commonly believed that the Public Distribution System is subject to widespread leakage and waste, with an earlier study finding that as much as one third of the food grains and sugar and half of the edible oils going into the system did not reach the intended user. The system is “beset by pervasive corruption” with estimates that around 36 per cent of the foodgrains distributed were diverted onto the black market.83 There are also significant differences in effectiveness of the Public Distribution System across states, which has been attributed to the divergences in the quality of governance.84 The system has been found to work best in states known to have higher transparency and accountability of local government officials.85 The recent introduction of Aadhaar, a biometric identification card, is expected to combat corruption in the system.

Stemming from the perceived inadequacies of the Public Distribution System, the Rajasthan People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) filed a writ in July 2001 on behalf of the poor who had not received the requirement employment and food relief as mandated under the 1962 Rajasthan Famine Code. The PUCL brought a claim against the Government of India, the Food Corporation of India, who is responsible for managing both the Minimum Support Prices program and Public Distribution System, along with six state government, for ineffectively managing public distribution of food grains. PUCL pointed to the fact that at the same time that there are reports from various states of deaths taking place from starvation, despite the fact that excess buffer stocks of food grains are kept in storage facilities across the country. The litigation was later expanded to apply to all state governments and to address the wider and more complex issue of hunger, unemployment and food security. Based on a constitutional precedent which defined the right to life as “the right to live with human dignity and all that goes along with it, namely the bare necessaries of life such as adequate nutrition,”86 the case sought to enforce a constitutional right to food. This paved the way for an era of sustained engagement by all stakeholders on food security related issues in India.

India has long had the basic legal framework protecting a right to food. A State Party to the International Covenant of Economic, Cultural and Social Rights, the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women, India has long been under an international obligation to ensure its citizens enjoy sufficient access to food. In the domestic context, Article 21 of the Constitution provides for the “right to life”, which as noted above, had previously been interpreted by the courts to include the right to adequate food and nutrition. In addition, Article 39(a) directs the State to ensure that all citizens have “the right to an adequate means of livelihood” and Article 47 provides that the “State shall regard the rising level of nutrition and the standard of living of its people and the improvement of public health as among its primary duties”. However, these two articles are contained in the Directive Principles section of the Constitution and are consequently aspiration and non-justiciable in nature, as they only serve to guide the interpretation of fundamental rights.

A series of interim orders delivered as part of the case have “served to define gradually, and with increasing detail, India’s constitutional right to food.”87 In an order made on 28 November 2001, the Supreme Court “essentially redefined the government schemes as constitutionally protected legal entitlements” and further outlined in “detail how those government schemes were to be implemented.”88 In 2013, the National Food Security Act was enacted, launching the world’s largest food safety net – which provided for food security as a legal entitlement. As a result, India has been described as providing “one of the best examples in the world in terms of justiciability of economic, social and cultural rights”89 with the right to life interpreted extensively by the Supreme Court to include the right to food.

2. China.— China and India apply quite different approaches to helping poor consumers gain access to food. Unlike India, China does not use price-based instruments to provide subsidies to poor households on food grain purchased. Instead, it has increasingly used direct income transfers and other social safety net instruments targeting poor and vulnerable consumers to strengthen access to food. Beginning in the 1990s, China began experimenting with a Minimum Living Guarantee Program (dibao) for poor rural residents. By 2007, the program was adopted nationwide and has been extended to poor urban residents. By the end of 2013, it was estimated that the dibao programme covered 20.6 million urban residents and 53.9 rural residents, reaching 4 per cent of the country’s urban population and 6 per cent of the country’s rural population.90 Implementation of the program remains decentralized as eligibility thresholds, beneficiary selection and transfer payments are determined locally. 91



Although China has ratified the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in 2001, the Convention on Rights of Child in 1992 and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women in 1980. However, unlike India, the right to food is neither stipulated in Chinese law, nor referenced in the official policy rhetoric.92 Article 45 of the Constitution provides a general right for people to seek “material assistance from the state and the society when they are old, ill or disabled.”93 However, there is no specific reference to food and the focus is on social welfare more broadly and applies to the old, ill and disabled rather than all citizens. Laws regulating different dimensions of food security in China largely focus on the production of food and the control of the food system and its products. Laws pertaining to the consumption of food largely emphasize the safety of food products, such as the Law on Protection of Consumer Rights and Interests; the Standardization Law; and the Product Quality Law.

C. Increasing Focus on Food Use


1. India.— The importance of adequate nutrition “came to the policy forefront” in India in the mid-1990s when the government adopted the 1993 National Nutrition Policy and the 1995 National Plan of Action on Nutrition.94 By the early 21st century, the country’s tenth Five Year Plan marked a paradigm shift to directly tackle the emergence of the dual burden of persistent undernutrition and inadequate dietary intake amongst one segment of the population, coupled with over-nutrition and low physical amongst another segment of the population. The tenth Five Year Plan, which covered the 2002 to 2007 period, focused on comprehensive interventions which targeted not only food, but also nutrition security. The Plan moved the country’s food security policies away from untargeted food supplementation towards screening people from vulnerable groups and identifying those suffering malnutrition to make appropriate interventions. The Plan also focused on the prevention of over-nutrition and obesity via the promotion of healthy lifestyles and appropriate dietary intakes.95 In addition, the Plan emphasized the need to strengthen nutrition and health education amongst the population and listed concrete targets to reduce the prevalence of underweight children, increase the level of breastfeeding, reduce the prevalence of anaemia and eliminate Vitamin A deficiency. In September 2003, the Prime Minister set up the National Nutrition Mission aimed at improving coordination between different Ministries who deliver nutrition related interventions. The Mission also launched a pilot project in 51 ‘nutritionally deficient districts’ to distribute food grains free of charge through the targeted Public Distribution System to adolescent girls and pregnant or lactating women, who have long been recognized as nutritionally vulnerable segments of the population, and are classified as below the poverty line.96

As a result, India has been described as a leader when it comes to addressing nutritional needs. Not only has research in India “contributed substantially to the global efforts to review the ongoing transitions and evolve appropriate definitions of food security, recommendations regarding human nutrient requirements, and develop appropriate standards for assessment of nutritional status”, the country has also invested in food supplementation programmes and interventions aimed at prevention, early detection and effective management of under- and over-nutrition.97

In recent years, the government has further expanded their policies and interventions in response to judicial and civil society activism.98 In the PUCL case (see the Access to Food section above), the Supreme Court not only gave specific instructions on the implementation of the Public Distribution System, but also ordered the expansion of other food security schemes which specifically targeted nutrition in vulnerable populations. For example the Supreme Court ordered an expansion of the Mid-day Meal by “providing every child in every government and government assisted primary school with a prepared mid-day meal with a minimum content of 300 calories and 8-12 grams of protein every school day for a minimum 200 days.”99 Similarly, the Supreme Court directed the Integrated Child Development Scheme, which provides supplementary nutrition to young children and pregnant and nursing mothers, to be made universal across the country. 100 The Court ordered the establishment of 1.4 million Anganwadi centres, which are the main vehicles of the Integrated Child Development Scheme. In 2004 there were about 600,000 Anganwadi centres in India before implementation of the order. By 2010, there were over 1.2 million Anganwadi Centres, with another 125,000 sanctioned. It is estimated that 81 per cent of children under the age of 6 are now covered by the centre.101

However, efforts to strengthen public education on nutrition, sanitation and health are likely to be hindered by an overall low education and literacy levels. On average, the Indian population has only 4.43 mean years of schooling, only 50.4 per cent of males have some form of secondary education and this number drops to almost half for females, of which only 26.6 per cent have some form of secondary schooling. As a result, India has an adult literacy rate of only 62.8 per cent.102 The hurdle posed by education is exemplified through efforts to improve sanitation in the country, where education levels, particularly women’s education levels, have been identified to have a positive correlation with the quality of toilet facilities.103 This may help to explain why, despite the introduction of a number of government run sanitation programs which have focused on community campaigns to eliminate open defecation and civil society efforts to provide sanitation technologies, the country continues to suffer from poor sanitation. In 2014, the World Health Organization estimated that India has 597 million people practicing open defection, making it the country with the highest number of people practicing open defecation in the world.104 The report also found that 92 million people in India continue to lack access to an improved drinking source and 792 million people lack access to an improved sanitation facility.105

Education to improve sanitation practices is particularly important when it comes to improving food use, as poor sanitation has been used to explain India’s food security paradox, where in spite of enormous economic growth improvements in food security continues to lag behind. In particular, despite a consistently per capita food grain availability at the national level and the existence of a number of systems to secure access to food, India continues to perform particularly poorly in indicators of health and nutrition as measured by stunting and weight levels. According to 2009 and 2001 figures, India is home to 31 per cent of the world’s children under 5 that have stunting and 37 per cent of the world’s total underweight children. Between 1998-99 and 2005-06, the percentage of children underweight reduced by only 2.3 per cent.106 These problems are increasingly being attributed to high rates of open defecation.107

2. China. In China, the State Council issued the National Plan of Action for Nutrition in 1997. In addition to alleviating hunger and food shortages, the National Plan of Action placed a significant focus on the need to eliminate micronutrient deficiencies, improve the general nutritional status of people and prevent diet related non communicable diseases such as obesity, diabetes mellitus, cardiovascular diseases and cancer through proper guidance on dietary behaviours and the promotion of a healthy lifestyle. The National Plan of Action has been accompanied by the publication of Dietary Guidelines for Chinese Residents and the Balanced Diet Pagoda, similar to the American food pyramid guidance system and a number of nutritional education campaigns have been held throughout the country, mainly in the form of nutrition education sessions for health workers. Efforts have also taken place to shift the cultural norm on academic achievement, by promoting physical education in schools. However, it has been suggested that there are “very few direct nutritional interventions” in China, and “information dissemination concerning nutrition is limited in scale and usually unorganized” as it has been noted that thus far no mass-media campaign or systematic national education program on nutrition has been launched.108 Instead, policies target the supply side to provide incentives for farmers to grow more health foods with the government relying on adjustments and subsidies to increase the production of soybeans and vegetables.109



This is potentially a missed opportunity in the context of the country’s high education levels. According to the UN Human Development Index, China’s population has 7.54 mean years of schooling, with 65.3 per cent of population having some form of secondary education and adult literacy rates above 95 per cent.110 The country is seen to be “close to achieving universal compulsory education for nine years”.111 While, rural education remains “very poor by any standards”, there has recently been a “renewed government interest in improving education and reducing the cost, especially in poor rural areas”. Fees for elementary schools were eliminated in poor areas in 2005 and by 2006 this had been extended to cover the entire rural economy and by 2007 all compulsory education was free.112

Furthermore, in the “aftermath of the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARs) outbreak in 2003, the Chinese government substantially increased funding for public health.” 113 The Healthy China 2020 program seeks to promote public health and make health care accessible and affordable for all Chinese citizens by 2020. A key component of this is the New Cooperative Medical System, introduced in 2003, to improve accessibility to health care among rural residents. It is funded by both federal and regional governments and covers a fraction of out-of-pocket medical costs for rural residents. Prior to its introduction in the early 2000s, a survey found that 65 per cent of rural residents requiring hospitalization were either opting not to be admitted or checked themselves out of hospital prior to their formal discharge, due primarily to financial concerns.114 The system has witnessed initial success, by 2010 more than 96 per cent of rural residents were covered by the New Cooperative Medical System and 90 per cent of participating rural households expressed their willingness to continue participating in the program, although there remains some criticism that the system was ineffective, mainly due to the high healthcare costs.115


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