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Food Security refers to when all people, at all times, have the social and financial means to consume food that is nutritious and balanced according to their dietary needs. Food security is achievable through four pillars- access, affordability, utilisation and stability.

At first glance, through the definition, it is evident that Food Security has not been achieved. In the context of India, this becomes more evident; 38.4% (FAO, 2017) of children under the age of 5 in India are stunted due to lack of adequate nutrition. Meanwhile, 14.5% of India’s population is undernourished. When these statistics examined at a micro-level in the country, the results are worse. NFHS-5 shows that people from several Indian states are as malnourished today as they were five years ago.

Given India’s economic trajectory in the past couple of decades, it appears that increased social security has not accompanied high economic growth. Post-1991, India’s Economic policy took a sharp turn which facilitated rapid growth. With the Washington Consensus being adopted, structural changes like liberalisation and privatisation followed. These changes propelled rapid urbanisation in the country. Today, India has one of the highest rates of urbanisation in the world.

Urbanisation is a result of high rural-urban migration, with rural populations migrating in hopes of better economic outcomes due to the higher prevailing wage rates in urban areas. The rapid urbanisation in India, like other developing countries, has not been accompanied by better governance structures. Poor governance and resource allocation in urban areas leave migrant populations vulnerable to social and economic insecurity. A product of this social and economic insecurity are slums. Slums are predominantly an urban phenomenon in developing countries and are characterised by poor sanitation and low access to economic opportunity and basic amenities. Nearly 42% of Mumbai's population (Financial Capital of India) lives in slum areas despite slums occupying just 7% of the land area.

The inequalities arising from the faulty distribution of resources in urban areas has resulted in terrible socio-economic outcomes for the urban poor- high rates of food insecurity are one of them. Without delving into the statistics, we can theoretically examine why the urban poor would be food insecure.

As indicated by the definition, social and economic access are necessary for food security. For the urban poor, both will be lacking. The urban poor disproportionately consists of migrants from rural areas: these migrants- on account of their low skill level, are pushed into working in the informal sector, although, often, even skilled migrants end up in the informal sector. The informal sector does not offer significant gains- employment is usually temporary, and job security is uncertain. Moreover, most informal sector jobs pay daily wages, which result in a limited income for day-to-day expenses like food. For example, during the initial phases of lockdown, India saw a mass migrant exodus from the country’s urban cities. Most of these migrants were daily wage labourers who had no savings left to afford basic amenities like food. To avoid starvation, they migrated back to their rural homes- on foot. This incident revealed the state of food insecurity in the urban poor in India.

Economic deprivation is hence the biggest cause of food insecurity in urban areas. Moreover, the methods of measurement of this economic deprivation in urban areas are often inadequate. Absolute levels of poverty in cities tend to be moderate, depending on the locality. However, relative levels of poverty are always high due to the prevailing levels of income inequality. This makes food security schemes like the PDS less effective since PDS targets below poverty line households. In an absolute sense, a sufficient amount of the urban poor may not satisfy the BPL requirements but would still suffer from food insecurity due to the higher costs of living associated with urban areas- prices tend to be higher in urban areas due to higher demand, higher average incomes and high transportation costs. While those above the poverty line, with certain income constraints, are still eligible for the PDS programme, the amount due to them is much less.

Social access too is unavailable to a sufficient proportion of the urban population. Marginalised communities like Dalits and Adivasis are disproportionately represented in the poor. These communities have historically remained marginalised through evils of untouchability; such social concepts are rooted in the context of deliberate deprivation. Food deprivation is practised prominently practised through untouchability. Due to the oppression meted out to these communities, economic access, too, becomes more difficult. Dalit and Adivasi communities in India depict starkly worse health and economic outcomes than other social groups.

Apart from access, utilisation is another pillar of Food Security. Utilisation here implies the ability of one’s body to utilise nutrients properly. This is not possible without access to safe drinking water and a sanitary environment, among other factors.

Most slum dwellers report no access to proper toilet facilities. Clean drinking water is hard to procure, and due to the high population density, a sanitary environment is hard to maintain. The lack of these makes the absorption of nutrients harder. Hence, even the limited nutrients that slum populations consume often will not enrich their bodies correctly.

The pillar of ‘Stability’ for food security implies the stability of the other three pillars. That is, stable access to/availability of safe food and constant utilisation of the nutrients consumed. This, too, is difficult for the urban poor. Given the conditions of employment in the informal sector, a stable income is hard to maintain and job uncertainty always prevails. This makes stable access to safe food difficult. Moreover, unstable economic conditions impact the affordability of adequate housing facilities that result in households shifting to slum areas- if they did not already live there.

The availability of food in India, however, is not a significant issue in this context. The country consistently produces food above the domestic requirements. Though waste due to inadequate food storage and management facilities is prevalent, its impact on food availability is not severe enough to result in a shortage. It is due to unrestrained price mechanisms, faulty resource allocation and gaps in public infrastructure that majorly impede access to food in India.

The key difference between rural and urban poverty lies in the fact that rural areas consist of smaller populations and are similar in characteristics on many levels- hence, standardised solutions to deal with poverty can be applied here. The same cannot be said for the urban poor. Urban poor communities cannot be generalised and differ vastly in characteristics and conditions based on the features of the cities (geography, transport, public goods provisions etc.). The biggest difference arises in terms of housing facilities available to the urban poor versus rural populations. The urban poor experience higher rates of tenure insecurity, lower access to safe and affordable housing as well as basic sanitation facilities. This impacts their food security outcomes as well, food utilisation in particular. Moreover, the lack of affordable housing and tenure insecurity would increase the relative price of nutritious food for such communities. Levels of relative poverty in urban areas are much worse than those in rural areas- this, in turn, also affects the nutritional outcomes. However, the mainstream perspective often misses out on these worsened outcomes due to the mentioned inequality. For example, the given data depicts the difference in the general view of urban nutrition versus the one catered to the urban poor population. It also portrays the difference between the urban poor and rural poor populations.

The following table can be used as empirical evidence to support the above made arguments.



1. 'Food insecurity in urban poor households in Mumbai' Chatterjee et al., 2012 2. 'Food insecurity dynamics in India: A synthetic panel approach' Bhuyan et al., 2020

3. 'Food insecurity dynamics in India: A synthetic panel approach' Bhuyan et al., 2020

4. 'Health status in India: A study of urban slum and non-slum population' Usmani, Gulnawaz & Ahmad, Nighat (2018)

Written By: Riya Chaturvedi (

Edited By: Priyanshi Kapoor


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