The problem has arisen due to the decision in the 1970s to invest in chemical external input agriculture in the plains areas where big irrigation projects are possible, to the near total neglect of the 70% dryland areas in the upper watersheds where the best means of agricultural development is through soil, water and forest conservation and the promotion and augmentation of in situ soil moisture based cereal-legume mix dryland agriculture. The huge investments in chemical agriculture were also accompanied with the decay of decentralised and labour intensive local post harvest processing and its concentration in urban areas further weakening the rural economy. The only way to turn around the rural economy and so bolster rural livelihoods and incomes and consequently tackle the problem of malnutrition sustainably is to reorient agriculture towards in situ inputs through extensive soil, water and forest conservation measures. Use the increased amount of biomass so produced to generate energy through anaerobic combustion in a decentralised manner and then use this energy for local post harvest processing of the agricultural produce. This latter would not only result in rejuvenating the rural economy but would also drastically reduce the import bill of crude oil which is the main contributor to the current account deficit. This has to be accompanied by a concerted move to produce less water intensive crops and a change in food consumption patterns towards these crops. Obviously the subsidies and support prices would have to be geared towards this sustainable system for it to establish itself.
However, this is not being done and so the problem of unsustainability of agriculture continues to grow more serious with every passing day. Apart from malnutrition this has also manifested itself in the increasing number of suicides by farmers. For the last decade or so the problem of malnutrition has been sought to be addressed through the provision of cheap food grains through a Public Distribution System. Due to the practice of purchasing food grains, mainly wheat and rice, at higher support prices, the Government has a huge stockpile of these grains amounting to some 40 million tonnes. So under pressure from the Supreme Court which had taken cognisance of a Pubilic Interest Litigation filed by the People's Union of Civil Liberties in the early 2000s the Government has provided subsidised cereals to the poor through the Public Distribution System and through mid day meals provided to school going children. This has now been considerably expanded with the recent passage of the Food Security Act. The neo-liberal economists are against this Act because they feel that the increased subsidy burden will further jeopardise the already precarious finances of the Government. The same objection was also raised earlier against the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act which promises to provide one hundred days of employment in rural areas to those who demand it. In reality the subsidy burden due to the FSA or the earlier MGNREGA is miniscule compared to that being given to industry in many ways. According to an estimate the total revenue foregone through tax exemptions to the rich in India in 2012-13 was Rs 5.82 lakh crores apart from the many other subsidies that the industrial sector is given. Whereas the total spends due to the limited right to food and right to work entitlements will only be about Rs 1.25 lakh crores. This subsidy to the poor will increase their incomes and improve their nutrition (though only slightly so, as the poor will still suffer from protein and other nutrient deficiency) and thus make them less prone to disease. Thus, a more valid criticism would be not about the subsidy being given through the FSA but about the wrong direction of the subsidy being given to chemical agriculture of about Rs 1.50 lakh crores which is in the end not only serving the big corporate interests involved in supplying the various external inputs but also destroying the sustainability of our future availability of food in particular and the rural economy in general. Incidentally the subsidy to agriculture per hectare in the European Union and the United States of America is five times more than in India but there seems to be hardly any objections being raised about this by the neo-liberal economists. It is not the subsidies per se but the direction of these subsidies towards the poor that seem to rankle with the rich. After all only if the rich were not getting any subsidies could they strike a moral high ground against the FSA and the MGNREGA. But since that is not the case their opposition is nothing but self seeking as they fear that these enhanced subsidies to the poor will cut into their own disproportionate share.
Like the right to education, right to health and the right to work, the right to food too is an essential right of the vast impoverished masses in this country. Ideally there should be a subsidy to make agriculture and the food consumption patterns more sustainable in ecological and economical terms but failing this subsidies to provide a minimum work and food guarantee to the poor is not only an ethical imperative it is also an economic imperative as without it the purchasing power and the productivity of a vast section of the population will be seriously impaired leading to a moribund economy on the whole. We can take advantage of the demographic dividend only if we have a well educated, healthy, well fed and productive population.