This correspondent has to begin this report with a big mea culpa. In 31 years as an environmental journalist, this is the first time that I am writing an article about food per se. I have touched upon it, tangentially, in discussing issues such as land or climate change, but never head-on. I daresay that other environmental journalists may find themselves in the same boat. However, a two-day launch in Delhi of the Oxfam India - IDS (Institute of Development Studies, Sussex, UK) special issue of the IDS Bulletin on Food Justice July 17-18 has corrected this omission on my part.

It was entirely devoted to food security and titled Standing on the Threshold: Food Justice in India. The harsh truth is that half the farmers in this country - we forget that they are also consumers of food (if they are fortunate enough, which is certainly not true as far as the majority is concerned) - have no access to the Public Distribution System (PDS). This network, carefully built up in the Nehruvian era, has been gradually eroded with the advent of neo-liberal policies imposed by the Bretton Woods twins: the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. The state, following their diktat, has reduced the number of households entitled to PDS under the guise of "targeted" food subsidies.

The "other half" of farmers produces 41 per cent of all the country's food; indeed, small farmers fill the bread basket in many developing countries. Four laws lie in wait to be passed, which will benefit them immensely. These are: the National Food Security, Land Acquisition and Resettlement, Women's Land Entitlement and the Mines and Minerals Development and Regulation bills. They will face a stormy ride before - that is, if ever - they are legislated.

Despite the exclusion of a third of the population, Pawar was reported to have conveyed to Food Minister K.V. Thomas his reservations regarding the enhancement of the investment in agriculture to meet the food security bill.

 •  A flawed food security system
 •  Agriculture policies to blame

One should only recall how, soon after Independence, Jawaharlal Nehru remarked: "Everything else can wait, but not agriculture." The renowned agricultural scientist and "father of the Green Revolution" Professor M S Swaminathan points out that he said this in the context of the Bengal Famine of 1942-43 and the acute food scarcity prevailing in the country in 1947.

It is a damning indictment of the rulers of this country that it has taken no less than half a century of civil and judicial activism to enforce to some extent Articles 21 and 47 of the constitution, which guarantee the right to life, as well as that to food and nutrition. It is only in the last 15 years that these rights have become justiciable or recognised in courts. And, as barely requires repetition, India is one of the three countries worst off in the world so far as child nutrition is concerned.

At the Delhi Oxfam-IDS meet, N C Saxena, the former highly committed bureaucrat who is the Special Commissioner for Food Rights, appointed by the Supreme court, questioned how such hunger could persist in the midst of high economic growth.

The Economic Survey of 2011 showed how foodgrain production has dropped from 208 kg per person per year in 1997-97 to 186 kg in 2009-10, a precipitous decline of 11 per cent. And yet, thanks to the persisting virtual negligence at best, and venality at worst, of Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar, who is more concerned about the Board of Cricket Control than controlling food prices or hunger, India has been exporting an average of 7 million tonnes of cereal a year, causing availability to decline further to 15 per cent.

As Saxena writes in the IDS Bulletin, "This has adversely affected the cereal intake of the bottom 20 per cent of the population which continues to be at least 20 per cent less than the cereal intake of the top decile [one-tenth] of the population, despite the rich doing less manual work and having better access to fruits, vegetables and meat products."

As CPM MP Brinda Karat has argued, "According to earlier data, an Indian, on average, spent as much as 53 per cent of total expenditure on food requirements. With relentless food inflation, this percentage would be far higher now. In comparison, Americans, on average, spend 9.3 per cent of their income on food, in Italy a family on average spends 25.7 per cent, in Japan 19.1 per cent, in France 16.3 per cent, in the United Kingdom 11.5 per cent. While there is a difference in the method of calculation between India and the others, it does emphasise the Indian reality of higher food prices and lower levels of disposable income than other countries."

While the broad facts regarding the widespread prevalence of hunger may be commonly known in this country, the recent crop of Marie Antoinettes never ceases to amaze. Her 18th century, probably apocryphal, quote: "Let them eat cake" has been translated from the French brioche, supposedly spoken by "a great princess" upon learning that the peasants had no bread. Since brioche was enriched with butter and eggs as opposed to ordinary bread, the remark reflects how the princess was oblivious to the condition of the people.

The most unpredictable of all present-day desi Antoinettes is the hirsute strongman of Gujarat, Narendra Modi, who ascribes the high level of malnutrition in his state to the predominantly vegetarian diet as well as the "middle-class" being "more beauty conscious than health conscious". This would make him, and the country, the laughing stock of the readers of The Wall Street Journal, where he was thus quoted.

And this follows close on the heels of Union Steel Minister Beni Prasad Verma when he said: "Dal, atta and rice have become expensive. The more the prices, the better it is for farmers [sic]. I am happy with this inflation." For once, a Congress or opposition leader did not say that he was misquoted when a nation-wide furore erupted.

In their introduction to the IDS Bulletin, Lawrence Haddad, the IDS Director, policy analyst C P Chandrasekhar and Oxfam India's Food Justice campaign head Biraj Swain point out that "India stands on the threshold of potentially the largest step towards food justice the world has ever seen" [emphases added]. It is meant to cover 70 per cent of all households in the country. The entire process has been orchestrated by the Supreme Court - not, despite all its tall promises and claims, the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government.

The authors are pragmatic enough to realize that there are many hurdles in the path towards its implementation. On July 18, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh introduced some clauses in the Food Security Bill which would give states greater flexibility with "liberal" options for states, even while binding the Centre to a higher food subsidy burden than envisaged in the current bill.

The existing provisions specify that those below the poverty line (BPL) would get 35 kg per month at highly subsidised rates; APL families would be entitled to 15 kg at a higher price. States like Tamilnadu, Andhra Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Orissa already have wider public distribution systems, so are to be treated differently.

Despite the exclusion of a third of the population, Pawar was reported to have conveyed to Food Minister K.V. Thomas his reservations regarding the enhancement of the investment in agriculture to meet the food security bill, which adds Rs 7000 crores to the existing bill of Rs 1.11 lakh crores. Such concerns about supposed extravagance in something as fundamental as feeding the hungry do not square with the crass display of wealth and extravaganzas during the Indian Premier League, which form of cricket he has championed and presides over.

Much before the PM lobbed the ball of "flexibility" in the campaigners' court, proposing the exclusion of a third of the population, analysts like Jean Dreze and co-authors Swain and M Kumaran, Oxfam India's Food Justice Programme Coordinator, had drawn attention, in their respective articles titled "Food Security, Plan Z" (Hindustan Times August 23, 2012) and "Who do the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) and PDS exclude and what can be done to change this?" (IDS Bulletin). The co-authors discuss three types of exclusion: "official", due to lack of committing adequate resources; implementation flaws; and flawed policy itself.

Only a few days ago, the Right to Food Campaign - a conglomeration of civil society groups - held a day-long protest at Jantar Mantar in Delhi, raising seven questions with MPs on the proposed National Food Security Bill, particularly in relation to people going hungry when the country has surplus food stocks, the Hindu reported. Rejecting the proposed amendments to the Bill that might reduce beneficiaries and entitlements under the Public Distribution System (PDS), they sought to know why a food security bill was needed, in the first place.

They assailed the government for objecting to the food subsidy that would accrue from a universal distribution of cheap grains in the PDS "when the greed of politicians of all hues had made the country lose thousands of crores of rupees in the allocation of coal blocks, 2G scam, Delhi airport scandal and corruption in the Commonwealth Games''.

One of the most disturbing trends has been highlighted by R Ramakumar of the Tata Institute of Social Sciences with different co-authors, originally in the Economic and Political Weekly (December 29, 2007) and the IDS Bulletin. They show how public investment in and expenditure on agriculture "has grown only slowly and has not decisively increased even after more than 60 years of independence". In 2009-10, the share of public gross capital formation in farm GDP stood at 3.2 per cent, which was still lower than the corresponding share in the early 1980s.

However, credit to agriculture did increase from 2004. But: "The increase in credit was to a large extent the result of a growing share of indirect finance which, in turn, has been broadened in scope to cover many new kinds of farm lending. Moreover, even as direct lending to agriculture has also grown, there has been a sharp increase in the share of large-sized advances for financing agri-business oriented enterprises, rather than for the small and marginal farmers".

In the EPW, Ramakumar and his co-author point out that "increase in credit flow has been an integral part of the so-called 'new deal for rural India' promised by the UPA government. A 'comprehensive credit policy' was announced in June 2004, which included the commitment to raise agricultural credit flow by 30 per cent every year, financing of 100 farmers per branch (thus, 50 lakh farmers in a year), two to three new investments in agricultural projects per branch every year and a host of debt-relief measures, such as debt restructuring, one-time settlement and financial assistance to redeem loans from moneylenders [Ministry of Agriculture 2007]".

In the early 1990s, with the easing of controls on the economy, neo-liberals criticized the policy of social and development banking. They argued that banks should function on a commercial basis and profitability should be their main concern. Further, this lobby advocated that banks be given a free hand to charge what interest rates they decided on and to close rural branches in the guise of "rationalization" of networks. This has to be viewed against how in a single year, as Karat alleges, the UPA government conceded tax concessions totaling Rs 5 lakh crore to the well-to-do: "comforting the comfortable", rather than afflicting them.

Crisil, the credit rating agency, reported only a week ago that rising inflation and a slowdown in growth had little impact on rural consumption in the two years from 2009-10 and 2011-12. In its report, it cites the much-maligned National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme as being responsible, as its findings are titled, for "Sustaining a Rural Consumption Boom", since the scheme was availed of by nearly 27 per cent of rural households.

In its 66th round survey of household consumption, the National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO), which provides the most reliable statistics in the country, has also revealed that the spending patterns of the urban and rural poor have narrowed over the last two years. The average spending by a rural household in 2009-10 was Rs 1,054, while its urban counterpart stood at Rs 1,984.

Whether this presages a "trickle-down", as neo-liberals are arguing, is far too early to say. After all, the NSSO's more recent 68th survey shows, on the contrary, that the benefits of India's growth have been cornered by the upper crust. The poorest one-tenth in rural India spend on an average Rs 17 a day per head; half the rural population spends less than Rs 35 a day per capita. This lends credence to the Arjun Sengupta Committee report that five years ago, in 2007, 836 million or 78 per cent of Indians spent less than Rs 20 a day.

How many more miserable years will agriculture - or more precisely, agriculturalists - have to wait?