Right to Food »

Right to Food

Md. Korban Ali *

This chapter analyses and assesses the performance of the State in meeting its obligations to respect, protect and fulfil the right to food in 2006. The obligation to respect is limited to the ability of the State to take action against threats to people’s existing access to food, such as taking away their land. The obligation to protect the right to food means that the Government must protect citizens from others seeking to violate their right to food. Finally, the obligation to fulfil means that the Government must take positive action to actively identify vulnerable groups and implement policies to enable them to feed themselves.
International and National Instruments

Bangladesh is a signatory to the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action adopted by the World Conference on Human Rights in 1993 and has expressed its commitment to implement the UN Declaration on the Right to Development, 1986. Moreover, Bangladesh has ratified the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in 1998, of which Article 11(2) provides that State Parties to the Covenant, recognising the fundamental right of everyone to be free from hunger, shall take, individually and through international cooperation, required steps towards this direction. This means that the Government has committed itself to respect , protect and fulfil the right to food. [1]

Article 15 of the Constitution recognises, as a fundamental principle of State policy, the responsibility of the State to secure to its citizens the provision of the basic necessities of life including food. Article 32 guarantees the right to life. There is, therefore, a clear commit- ment on the part of the State to ensure access to food to those who are in need of it most.

National Food Policy 2006

The most important positive Government action this year was the adoption of the National Food Policy (NFP) 2006, [2] which set a goal to ensure dependable and sustained food security for all, at all times. This Policy replaced the earlier Policy of 1988 which had left out many important aspects of food security. The objectives of the new Policy are to: (i) ensure adequate and stable supply of safe and nutritious food; (ii) enhance purchasing power of the people for increased accessibility; and (iii) ensure adequate nutrition for all (particularly for women and children).

The present policy recognizes that although the production of food grains (rice and wheat) has more than doubled since 1971, food security at national, household and individual levels remains a major concern. The Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper (PRSP) too recognises that almost half of the population lacks the resources to acquire enough food, and consequently remains below the poverty line. This poses a major question as to the extent to which the Government would be able to fulfil the MDG target to halve the number of the poor in the country by 2015.

No new programme was planned and implemented during the year by the Government for ensuring food security to the poor. However, the Department of Agricultural Extension (DAE) continued to implement programmes that enhanced crop/food production.

Political tensions that peaked during the year ahead of the elections scheduled for January 2007 had two visible consequences: (i) the print and electronic media gave a low coverage to threats to food rights of the poor compared to previous years; and (ii) almost all political parties as well as civil society organisations paid relatively little attention to the issue of food security and food rights of the poverty-prone communities and regions. The Government, reportedly, used the safety net and other food security programme resources as patronage, and resorted to favouritism, corruption, malpractice and misappropriation in distribution. For example, a number of Deputy Commissioners in a meeting organised by the Ministry of Food and Disaster Management in Dhaka, chaired by the then Cabinet Secretary, spoke clearly about the favouritism, misuse, misappropriation and political use of the resources allocated for Food for Works and Test Relief. [3]

In a study conducted in 2006, a group of researchers reported that most of the VGF card holders in Kalir Alga char under Jatrapur Union of Kurigram Sadar Upazila (Kurigram district) complained that they were getting eight kgs of wheat per month against the official allotment of ten kgs. When questioned by the researchers, the concerned UP Chairman explained that the difference in delivery was due to a loss of weight in transportation and storage. VGF card holders also complained that the Chairman of the Union allocated proportionally more VGF cards, mainly due to his political bias, to Bhagabatpur village which was not as vulnerable and erosion-prone area as Kalir Alga . [4]

As 2006 was a flood-free year, some research organisations predicted that the food security situation would not be aggravated further in greater Rangpur district, the most poverty-prone area of the country. Some of the chronic monga -prone areas of this region, however, were subjected to prolonged drought during the amon season (July-November) which led to apprehensions of low production of transplanted amon paddy and a deteriorating employment and food security situation for the poor. A recent study undertaken by Research Initiatives, Bangladesh (RIB) revealed that the intensity of monga was less in 2006 compared to the previous years which indicated that floods were a more serious factor in triggering monga than drought. [5]
Availability and Access to Food

The Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, after his mission to Bangladesh in 2003, had reported that the country had been self-sufficient in food production since 1996 and the spread of irrigation had contributed to three harvests a year. [6] In 2005, 40 per cent of the population living below the poverty line were faced with chronic food insecurity and severe malnutrition.

The right to food is realised when every woman, man and child, alone or in a community with others, has physical and economic access, at all times, to adequate food or means of procurement of food. The right to adequate food should, therefore, not be interpreted in a narrow sense, which equates it with a minimum package of calories, proteins or other specific nutrients. How far has Bangladesh been able to meet its obligations to respect, protect and fulfil the right of all its citizens, rich and poor, women and men to food?

Obligation to Protect

The State has a responsibility to protect the right to food of those who might be threatened by third parties, for example by powerful groups who may unlawfully grab land belonging to the poor or unlawfully evict tenants from their land or force them into exploitative contractual terms. In this context, the State’s obligation could be met by ensuring efficient land registration, enforcement of land rights and promoting tenancy reforms, since these would impact on the access to food. Agrarian reforms should be based on the principle of landholders working and residing on their lands and investing in agricultural production. This would deny absentee landlords an undue share of profits from the labour of others.

Instead of undertaking land reform, the administration has given indirect support to land grabbers during eviction of socially disadvantaged families from their land (owned or khas land ). In 2006, the Government on a number of occasions failed to protect members of disadvantaged groups from eviction, as exemplified below:

  • Ajker Kagoj , a Dhaka daily, reported, on 23 February 2006 that land belonging to the tribal Koch community of Bakakura village, in Jhinaigati Upazila of Sherpur district was occupied by men led by Abu Bakar Siddique. [7] It also reported, on 6 March 2006, that the village of Khasiapunji, in Kamolganj Upazila of Maulavi Bazar district was attacked and looted by men led by Abul Hossain, President of Adampur Union BNP. Houses were burnt and 150 bighas of land were occupied. [8]

  • The daily Sangbad reported on 20 July 2006, that land belonging to the Santal Srimangal of Begunbari village, in Gabindaganj Upazila, Gaibandha district was occupied by Abdul Khaleque, who built a house on the land, and threatened to kill members of the Santal family. [9]

  • In October 2006, 45 Santal families of Amoj village, in Sadar Upazila of Dinajpur district were evicted from their houses and lands ( khas land) by a powerful person, who had illegally occupied a large portion of the khas land adjacent to the households of the Adibashi families. On 24 October 2006 all the Adibashi homes were reported to have been deliberately gutted by fire to force their eviction. [10]

Farmers in different parts of Bangladesh demonstrated sporadi- cally against the non-availability of fertilisers and diesel, two key inputs for crop production caused by hoarding and abnormal price hike. Their protests reached a peak in April, a crucial period for Boro rice. Crises also prevailed during the following amon season. New Age in its editorial on 4 September 2006, wrote: [11]

“Fertiliser crisis has become a chronically recurring problem in recent times. There was another crisis earlier this year when fertiliser demand peaked for irri season. While the Government kept denying any such crisis, it later admitted that there was a problem with the distribution but there were sufficient stocks…The agricultural cycle of Bangladesh is as regular as the calendar itself. A crop season is not a matter of sudden fate that might leave the authorities unprepared to cope with the situation…While the previous regime had made considerable efforts to ensure availability of agricultural input factors such as fertiliser and electricity for irrigation, the current Government has remained apathetic to the plight of the farmers. We would like to point out that at the end of the BNP Government’s previous regime in 1996, 18 farmers demanding fertiliser were shot dead. Even during the current regime agricultural growth has stagnated at an average of 2.7 percent in the last five years and was a meagre 1.55 percent between 1991 and 1995, while it achieved a remarkable growth of 4.88 percent during the Awami League regime between 1996 and 2000.”

Bangladesh Today published from Thakurgaon on 23 December 2006 reported: [12]

“Rabi crop cultivation is being hampered in the district during the current season due to acute shortage of fertiliser. Several hundred agitating farmers surrounded Agricultural Officer and Agricultural Extension Officer in Baliadangi Upazila demanding fertiliser on Wednesday. Two groups of people locked into a clash over issuing slips of fertiliser on that day. Local farmers surrounded Upazila Nirbahi Officer (UNO) of Baliadangi Upazila on Tuesday. They snatched fertiliser from the godown of a dealer at Lahiri hat the previous day…Department of Agricultural Extension sources said, it would be difficult to control the situation if adequate fertilisers could not be supplied to the farmers by 2/3 days. Mahbub and Jahirul of Singia village in Sadar Upazila told UNB correspondent that urea fertiliser of Taka 300 was now being sold in the market at Taka 400/450.”

Between January to April 2006 the villagers of Kansat, in Chapai Nawabganj came together to protest the failure of the Government to provide electricity for industrial and agricultural purposes because it affected their food production. This developed into a massive, popular movement against the local administration and was followed by demonstrations in other areas. [13]
Obligation to Fulfil

The obligation to fulfil means that the State must pro-actively plan to strengthen people’s access to and utilisation of resources and means to ensure their livelihood, including food security. In this context, the State should adopt a pro-poor strategy to increase their buying capacity so as to their families.

To meet this obligation, the State must adopt and implement strategies and programmes that facilitate three components of food security i.e. food availability , food accessibility and food utilisation . The performance of the State machineries in ensuring food availa- bility and access, particularly for the poor is outlined here.

Food Availability

It is obligatory for the Government to take steps to increase domestic production, ensure timely imports (in case of deficit) and mobilise donor supported food aid for ensuring adequate food availability. Chronic food deficit results in price hikes which affect food availability at the individual and household levels of the poor. Only availability of food cannot ensure access of the poor and vulnerable to food.

The Government’s efforts to support food production activities at the household levels in 2006 were not satisfactory. Large-scale protests and demonstrations by farmers for production inputs, particularly fertiliser, diesel and electricity revealed a performance deficit by the Government towards supporting food production as mentioned earlier.

The total production of food grain during 2005-2006 was estimated at 27.6 mmt (million metric ton), about 5.6 per cent higher than 2004-2005, which was 26.13 mmt. Total food grain availability (including public and private imports and food aid) during 2005-2006 was estimated at 29.46 mmt against 29.39 mmt during 2004-2005. [14]

Annual per capita availability of food grains estimated for 2004-2005 was 202 kgs, which was reduced slightly to 200 kgs during 2005-2006. The decrease was attributed mainly to disproportionate increase of population and food production. Per capita availability of food grains per day calculated at 553gram in 2004-2005 and 548 gram in 2005-2006 was equivalent to 369 gram (1400 kcal energy) and 365 gram (1332 kcal energy) of rice respectively. [15]

In a study undertaken during 2004-2005, average per capita energy intake from rice among the hard core poor families in greater Rangpur district was estimated at 1,093 kcal, much lower than per capita average energy availability of 1,332 kcal from rice at the national level during 2005-2006. [16]

The current availability of food grains (local production, import- ation and food aid) is sufficient to meet the domestic requirement. Mere availability of food, however, does not ensure access to food for those with insufficient income to purchase part or whole of the quantity required. Access to food is determined, therefore, mainly by household production and/or income earned.
Food Accessibility

Household access to food depends on household income, assets, remittances, gifts, loans, income transfers and food aid. Increased income can improve access to food, but the poor have very few options to mobilise resources for getting access to food.

Abnormal price hikes of essential commodities including food items during the year seriously aggravated the food security of the people, particularly the hard core poor. The data in the following table shows that percentage increase of prices for rice, flour, pulses ( masur dal ), vegetables (potato) and green chillies since 2005 was 12.50, 20, 13, 89 and 67.

Table VIII.1: Comparative prices of some essential food items in 2005 and 2006

Food Items

Price (Tk./kg)
in 2006**

Price (Tk./kg) in 2005*

% increase of price during 2006

Amon HYV Coarse




Refined Flour




Pulses (lentils)




Potato (Holland, white)




Green chillies




Source : * Department of Agricultural Marketing, July 2005 ** Market survey of retail traders in Dhaka by the author.

The prices of many essential food items increased beyond tolerable limits for many consumers in 2006. The media and political parties attributed these price hikes to syndicated market controls by traders linked to the Four Parties Alliance, which was then in office. Extortion during transportation of essential commodities was a major cause for such price hikes. The Government failed miserably to stabilise the prices of food grains and other essential commodities. Destabilisation of prices decreased the real wages of workers and increased food insecurity of the poor. Sporadic demonstrations by farmers and large-scale unrest amongst garment workers were seen as protests against the failures of the Government to ensure a wage of minimum subsistence level.

Food insecurity and food rights of the poor are related to the lack of employment opportunities. Development experts are now increas ingly convinced that safety nets and other food security measures, though essential at times of severe crisis, cannot solve the periodic occurrence of famine-like situation. Government and non-government organisations working in the greater Rangpur district, jointly formed an apex organisation known as the North-West Focal Area Forum (FAF). With support from organisations such as RIB, FAF began to implement an action research programme in 2006 for cultivation of short duration transplanted amon varieties (such as BRRI Dhan-33) and crop diversification. Its main strategy was to harvest the short-duration rice during September-October instead of November-December, followed by cultivation of early potato to generate sufficient number of days of employment for the landless agricultural labour. This was expected to eradicate monga permanently. Other programmes to increase the buying capacity of the poor included lac cultivation and a paddy bank for storing rice for scarcity periods. In the FAF Monga Mitigation Project, 150 farmers from four locations in Nilphamari, Rangpur, Lalmonirhat and Kurigram were involved in the project. They cultivated 96.27 acres of BRRI Dhan 33, which resulted in an average per hectare yield of 3.51 tons of rice in all the locations. On the other hand, average per hectare yield of normal amon paddy (BR-11 variety) by the same farmers was estimated at 3.60 tons. Average per hectare labour person days (calculated on the basis of eight working hours per day) employed for BRRI Dhan 33 was 123 of which 64 were family labour and 59 were hired labour, while the average per hectare labour person days employed in normal amon field (BR-11 variety) was estimated at 137 of which 67 were family labour and 70 were hired labour.

Lac cultivation introduced during the monga period among 160 ultra poor households of Sadar Upazila in Nilphamari proved technically feasible and profitable as a means for generating employment for women.

Flaws and Leakages in Social Safety Net Programmes

The World Bank in a recent assessment [17] identified that at least one-third of the persons covered by the Government’s safety net programmes were not poor, and only a fraction of assistance was diverted to those who really needed it. The study revealed significant leakages in the safety net programmes ranging from 10-50 per cent in cases of food-based programmes such as VGD, Food-for-Work and 5 to 25 per cent in cash-based programmes, including stipends for students. The study also pointed out that micro-credit programmes were intertwined with social safety programmes but the former did not target the poorest segment of the society. Duplication of programmes was identified as a major problem and more coordination was recommended between implementing agencies to avoid overlapping between the two. The study recommended revision of existing programmes, and institutional arrangements for more efficient distribution and use of limited resources.

Indicators for Monitoring Fulfilment of the Right to Food

Based on the above analyses, the indicators that may be used to monitor the performance of the State in creating favourable condi- tions for fulfilling the rights of the poor to food as well as assessing the prevailing food situation are:

  • assessment of per capita food availability and of per capita energy uptake;
  • prevention of unlawful and forcible occupation of land by powerful land grabbers;
  • timely availability of agricultural production inputs to farmers’ at fair prices;
  • price stabilisation measures for essential food items;
  • performance in minimising the extent of flaws and leakages in safety net programmes and resources;
  • measures to ensure employment for the landless, agricultural workers and other vulnerable groups to increase food accessibility;
  • estimated real wages of the workers; and
  • coverage of safety nets and food-cum-cash aid programmes.


To plan for food security for the hard core or ultra poor the following measures are recommended:

  • Implementation of the National Food Policy.
  • Introduction of an Employment Guarantee Scheme for at least one adult member from each of the severely food insecure households during lean employment scarce periods of the year.
  • Introduction of crop diversification, cultivation of labour-intensive but profitable crops for lean employment periods of the year and setting up of small and medium agro-based rural industries, as two-third employment requirement is met from the agricultural sector.
  • Creation of farm and off-farm job opportunities by both Government and non-government agencies, especially for women and differently challenged persons.
  • Establishment of a comprehensive data-base of severely food insecure families, especially in the monga -affected areas.
  • Strengthen mass awareness and social movements against corruption to prevent leakage in distribution of safety net resources.


* The author is Director, Research and Programmes, Research Initiatives Bangladesh.

[1] Q. Shahabuddin, 2006, “ The Right to Food: Bangladesh Perspective ”, Keynote Paper presented in the Seminar on “Food Security in Bangladesh: Legal Obligations”, hosted by Bangladesh Legal Aid and Services Trust (BLAST) on 8 April, 2006.

[2] National Food Policy , 2006, Ministry of Food and Disaster Management, 14 August, 2006.

[3] Janakantha , 5 April, 2006, p 1-2.

[4] Action Aid Bangladesh, 2006. Efficient Responsiveness of Local Government: A Practical Approach for Risk Reduction in Charland Areas of Kurigram Sadar , p 137-140.

[5] RIB, 2007, “Impact Assessment of Monga Mitigation Through Cultivating BRRI Dhan 33 Project implemented by Focal Area Forum (FAF)”, Rangpur. Study Report, forthcoming.

[6] Special Rapporteur, E/CN.4.2004/10/Add.1, 2003.

[7] Ajker Kagoj , 23 February, 2006.

[8] Ibid., 6 March, 2006.

[9] Sangbad , 20 July, 2006.

[10] Oral observation by Hiren Das, Deputy Director, SEBA in Nilphamari.

[11] New Age , 4 September, 2006.

[12] Bangladesh Today , 23 December, 2006.

[13] See Chapter 2, p.22 and Chapter 3, p.36 - 37.

[14] Bangladesh Food Situation Report , January-March 2006, Vol. 66, FPMU.

[15] Ibid.

[16] A.M.M. Shawkat Ali, 2006. ‘Research on Selected Poverty Stricken Areas in Bangladesh,’ mimeo, Research Initiatives Bangladesh, Dhaka.

[17] World Bank, 2006. Social Safety Nets in Bangladesh: An Assessment , The World Bank, Bangladesh Development Series, Paper No. 9, Dhaka, January 2006.