Research Questions and Sources
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prepared by
George Kent
Department of Political Science, University of Hawai'i
Honolulu, Hawai'i 96822 U.S.A.

This Case Study raises questions about:

  • the right to food in India
  • poverty and living  conditions in  India
  • living conditions in poor countries
  • the human right to food and nutrition worldwide,
  • whether countries should or must join to enforce this right
  • the global system of  human rights and how choices are made re: the enforcement of which human rights.

Steps Students Might to Begin in the Case Study:

  1. First try answering the Propositions Exercise
  2. Then read Drought and Death and view the picture from A Farm Crisis and Suicides
  3. .Read The Human Right to Food in India, then choose which of the follow-up questions you will answer, and begin exploring the online websites provided for your research. Please recognize that you are free to explore websites other than those provided.  Develop full written answers that have supporting examples and a fair consideration of alternate viewpoints and counter-examples.

A second set of questions and websites follows for those who want to explore the larger issues of :

  • The foundations of human rights,
  • The human right to adequate food and nutrition.
  • Cultural foundations of Human rights.
  • International obligations.




Food Rights in India

To help get you started, here is a list of short statements or propositions on food rights. Please decide whether you agree or disagree with each. Please write down your answers and feel free to write brief explanations as well.

When you"re finished, you can compare your answers. It may also be interesting for you to answer these questions again after you have completed the Case Study.

Propositions on Food Rights

True or False??

  1. People have a right to adequate food.
  2. Governments are obligated to feed their people.
  3. Food safety is part of food rights.
  4. The United Nations is obligated to provide food to countries that don"t have enough food.
  5. The United States is one of the leading advocates of the right to food.
  6. Human rights are different in different countries.
  7. The World Food Program is required to provide food to North Korea.
  8. The World Food Program should be required to provide food to North Korea.
  9. Under normal conditions, the major obligation of national governments is to provide enabling conditions so that people can provide for themselves and their families.
  10. Infants have the right to be breastfed. Drought and Deaths

Case Study
The story which follows deals with the starving people of Rajasthan, and is taken from the April, 2001 edition of India"s Frontline magazine. It is called "Drought and Deaths," written by Neelabh Mishra.

Veera Hona (29), Mala (65) and Rota (75) of Medi panchayat in Kotada tehsil of Udaipur district, whose lives hunger claimed in February. The district administration was quick to claim that the death of these persons, all belonging to the Gamar tribe, was not owing to any famine.

What unfolds is a tale of growing unemployment, vanishing livelihoods, mounting debts, dwindling food resources and falling nutrition levels. This is the stark profile of poverty and hunger that you would come across anywhere in the southern and western parts of Rajasthan where acute famine conditions prevail as a result of three successive years of drought.

Veera of Nakola village, mortgaged his only piece of land, which measured just one bigha (one bigha is an extent of one-third to two-thirds of an acre), when it stopped yielding anything. Early this year he could find no work in neighbouring Gujarat where he goes in search of work during what is for him the lean labour season every year. With no money for the return trip, Veera trekked 70 km to reach Nakola on February 2, only to see an empty barn and his wife and three children with empty stomachs. With no work in the village - or in the fields or at government relief sites, where relief work was yet to start - and not enough forests around to sustain the village, he was worried about his family.

For two days he and his family tried to live off kajari seeds which they gathered from the forests and sold to the local shopkeepers. Soon, there were no more of these seeds, from which oil is extracted to make soap. They were again left with no work and hence no food. The children kept crying for food. Unable to stand this agony, Veera committed suicide by consuming a pesticide. In accordance with the local tribal custom, beside his grave were kept for a few days two earthen cups, one filled with offerings of a little rice and another with milk, both luxuries for Veera when alive.

In the case of Mala of Medi village, drought and illness together forced him to mortgage two years ago the only piece of land (two bighas) in his possession. Last year his child's illness saw his debt mount by Rs. 2,000 more. Malnutrition claimed the lives of three of his children, aged between one year and five years, in the last five years. Out of his four surviving children, Makana (14) has a walking disability. With no crop in the field and no employment, Makana left for Gujarat. When he could find no work there, he trekked 80 km to return home. Mala had also gone to Gujarat on an errand and returned disappointed only a fortnight before his son's home-coming. By then Mala, who had six dependents, had spent all the Rs.600 he had received in December as arrears of his old-age pension. He had no cash, food or work. As if it were not enough, he had a swollen foot. Left with no option, he became a beggar. His wife Jeeja collected firewood from the fast-shrinking forests, and that fetched her Rs.10 or 15 once in two or three days, barely enough for the family to prepare corn gruel (raabri) on alternate days. Meanwhile, the swelling on Mala's foot worsened, and he fell ill. He died on February 10.

The story of Rota Gamar of Koldara is no different. He and wife Jeera lived with their nephew Limba and his family. Driven by the drought, Limba migrated with his family to Gujarat around Deepavali last year. He left behind his 10-year-old daughter to take care of the old couple. Suffering from polio in one foot, Rota had a mule to take him to his kuccha house on the hill. The mule was the first to fall victim to the drought. Its death forced Rota to live in a one-room thatched hut at the foot of the hill. Rota's food stocks exhausted, and he could get no help from Limba. With a meagre daily earning of Rs.20-25, which he had to share with five family members, Limba could hardly send any money to his daughter and the old couple back home. Rota ran out of money when he had spent the old age pension of Rs.100 he had drawn in January. (That Rota had to spend Rs.50 every time he had to visit the teshil headquarters, 25 km away, to receive this Rs.100 is another story.) He turned a beggar, but could not get enough to eat. He fell ill, and died on February 10.

Like their deaths, the belongings as well as the debts the three persons left behind reveal a pattern. Their belongings, like those of many of their fellow villagers, were a single-room kuccha hut, a rickety charpoy (cot), a rag for the whole family to sleep on, one or two earthen pots, one or two aluminium or stainless steel utensils, a grinding stone and a slab, a small structure made of bamboo and mud to store foodgrain, a stone chakki, and a bigha or two of mortgaged land. The poorest of the three, Rota, had even less.

All three left behind debts running to not less than Rs. 10,000. Their debts too shared a pattern with those of most others in their villages. But for three government employees (two teachers and a postman) and a handful of non-tribal shopkeepers, almost everyone in the three villages has incurred a debt that ranges from Rs.10,000 to Rs. 40,000. The loans are of three kinds: sarkars, sahukars and sunars, that is, from the government (mostly from cooperative land banks) for digging wells and for other similar capital investments), from moneylenders (usually local shopkeepers), for mostly health reasons, and from pawn brokers (against their women's jewellery), as a last resort.

This same April, 2001 issue of Frontline has a lead article entitled  "A Farm Crisis and Suicides", by Parvathi Menon, which tells about the forty-one cases of suicides that were reported in the Anantapur district of Andhra Pradesh between September and November 2000.

Devarlu Balanna and his wife, from Marthadu village in Anantapur district, with the photograph of their son Devarlu Rajanna, who committed suicide last October.


While extreme hunger is always there in India, natural disasters such as floods and droughts bring more hunger because so many of the people are so vulnerable, living at the edge of hunger all the time.

Like many other developing countries, India has a wide variety of feeding programs, food subsidies, and other sorts of "schemes" to alleviate hunger, but somehow these programs are never quite enough. Lacking political power, marginalized people stay marginalized despite such efforts to help them. They can be empowered, however, through clear acknowledgment of their human rights. People have a right to adequate food. The following article on "The Human Right to Food in India" tells the story of the controversy over emerging recognition of this right. Over the centuries, many millions of people have gone hungry in India. Now, for the first time, the claim has been made that the government has a positive obligation to do something enforce this right, and if government does not meet its obligation, it can be called to account in the nation"s courts.

For  further exploration of this subject before answering questions, click here to read  THE HUMAN RIGHT TO FOOD IN INDIA.

PLEASE NOTE. At the end of the article The Human right to Food in India you will find an extensive list of websites to explore further your questions about the right to food.                        






This new approach to dealing with a widespread, historical problem is of great importance not only for India but also for the world. This case in India shows that a poor person, or some organization acting on her or his behalf, can sue the local or national government for allowing him and his family to go hungry. This radical change alters  our ways of thinking about people"s relationships to their governments.

  1. Should people to be able to sue their government if they are starving? If they lack food for an extended period?  What advantages and disadvantages lie in having government take the responsibility for making sure citizens do not starve? Whose responsibility is it to make sure that we do not let people starve? What does history show us about governments responding to this need for food.
  2. What might this claim for the right to food in India mean for the way India is governed? If one country enforces a right to food, what might that mean for other countries?
  3. What does the claim for the human right to food say about
  4. existing diplomatic and trade relationships between countries? The willingness of nations to enforce the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which they have signed?
  5. What implications does the claim for a right to food  have for the United Nations-affiliated agencies such as the World Food Program, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, the United Nations Children"s Fund, and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees?  What might it mean for the World Bank? The International Monetary Fund?  NAFTA?
  6. What implications might a right to food  have for nation states having to acknowledge international responsibilities as superseding national or local laws? For example, if a right to food were enforced internationally, and it led to the transfer of food or money from wealthy nations to underdeveloped countries, what might it mean for tax rates, property rights, local laws being superseded, elected officials lacking power to legislate and enforce the laws of the governments they are elected to serve?
  7. At what point might the right to food lead to some kind of requirement for regional or global population control or wealth redistribution?

Research Questions

The following subsections name specific themes, comment on them, and then pose some questions. A few relevant readings materials are suggested, but other materials should be sought as well. The bibliography in the essay on "The Human Right to Food in India" suggests many useful background pieces. Each of these themes can be used as a basis for research and writing, and also for group discussion.


(^click to enlarge

With a population of over 800 million, India prides itself on being the largest democracy in the world. Like many developing countries, it focuses much of its productive resources on exports. Many international agencies, such as the World Bank, urge them to do this as a way of becoming more fully engaged in the global marketplace. Critics say that focusing on exports means neglecting needs at home, but the advocates of the export orientation say that selling products outside, to those who have the most money, will strengthen the economy at home, and thus eventually benefit everyone back home. The patterns of agricultural production and marketing in India illustrate the dilemma.

QUESTIONS:  An Indian magazine posed a good question:

"Godowns" are warehouses.

Questions need to be raised not only with respect to grain, and not only for India. What are the implications of the Indian grain storage case for the ways in which other food issues should be handled by the governments in India and other countries? Should the government of India promote agriculture production for export or for domestic consumption? Why? What role should international agencies take with regard to the patterns of international trade?


Kent, George, "Globalization and Food Security in Africa", African Journal of Food & Nutritional Sciences, Vol. 1, No. 2 (2001), pp. xx-xx.

Madeley, John, Hungry for Trade: How the Poor Pay for Free Trade (New York: Zed Books, 2000).

Pinstrup-Andersen, Per and Babinard, Julie, "Globalization and Human Nutrition: Opportunities and Risks for the Poor in Developing Countries", African Journal of Food & Nutritional Sciences , Vol. 1, No. 1 ( August 2001), pp. 9-18.

Tully, Mark, "How Global Reform Failed India"s Poor", World.

Shiva, Vendana, Stolen Harvest: The Hijacking of the Global Food Supply(Cambridge, Massachusetts: South End Press, 2000).

World Bank, Globalization, Growth and Poverty: Building an Inclusive World Economy (Washington, D.C.: World Bank, 2001).


In terms of the law, the human right to adequate food is a part of the right to an adequate livelihood, which is a part of economic rights, which is a part of human rights generally, which is a part of international law. Thus, to get an appreciation of the context, we need to develop at least a broad understanding of how human rights work.

The core idea underlying human rights is simple. There are some fundamental things that people require if they are to live in dignity, and therefore they should be recognized as having rights to those things. These rights are spelled out in international human rights law. While every individual and every organization has certain obligations with regard to the human rights of the people they affect, it is national governments that carry the primary obligation to assure that people are able to live in dignity.

QUESTIONS: What are human rights, and how do they work, both globally and within particular countries? What difference is there between a moralistic statement such as "Everyone should have x", and a legalistic statement such as, "Everyone has the right to x"?


Buergenthal, Thomas, International Human Rights in a Nutshell, Third Edition (St. Paul, Minnesota: West Publishing  Company, 2000).

Convention on the Rights of the Child.

International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, United Nations, Human Rights: A Basic Handbook for UN Staff(Geneva: United Nations Staff College Project, 2001).


Understandings of the human right to adequate food and nutrition have been greatly strengthened since the World Food Summit of 1996 called upon the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights to clarify the meaning of the right and the means for its implementation. There is still a long way to go to assure the universal realization of that right.

QUESTIONS: What is the human right to adequate food and nutrition, and what needs to be done to assure its realization? How can the concepts be applied where you live? How could new legislation be used to strengthen food rights where you live?


Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Website on the Right to Food.

Robinson, Mary, The Human Right to Food and Nutrition (Geneva: High Commissioner for Human Rights, 1999).

United Nations. Economic and Social Council. Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Substantive Issues Arising in the Implementation of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights: General Comment 12 (Twentieth Session, 1999) The Right to Adequate Food (art. 11)  (Geneva: ECOSOC E/C.12/1999/5).

United Nations. General Assembly. Preliminary Report of the Special Rapporteur of the Commission on Human Rights on the Right to Food, Jean Ziegler (New York: United Nations General Assembly A/56/210, 23 July 2001.


Human rights are universal, by definition. They reflect a global consensus, identified through a process of international discussion, the drafting of proposed international agreements, and the signing and ratification of these agreements. However, this consensus emerges from varied roots, in different cultures, religious beliefs, and moral codes. The right to food, for example, shows up in some form in the basic texts of many different religions. The historical roots of the right to food in India have been analyzed in R. S. Khare"s study, "The Issue of "Right to Food" Among the Hindus: Notes and Comments".

QUESTIONS: How does the historical understanding of the right to food in India compare with the universal consensus that is now emerging in the international community? Concretely, how does the historic Hindu understanding, as described by Khare, compare with the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights authoritative account of the right to food as described in General Comment 12?  What are the major points of similarity and difference? Are there points on which they conflict with one another?


Khare, R. S., "The Issue of "Right to Food" Among the Hindus: Notes and Comments", Indian Sociology, Vol. 32, No. 2 (1998), pp. 253-278.

United Nations. Economic and Social Council. Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Substantive Issues Arising in the Implementation of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights: General Comment 12 (Twentieth Session, 1999) The Right to Adequate Food (art. 11)  (Geneva: ECOSOC E/C.12/1999/5).


So far our discussion has raised questions about the obligations of the national government, but the grain storage case in India also implies questions about the obligations of the international community. These questions can be framed in at least three different ways: (1) What are the obligations of other national governments with regard to the food rights of their own people; (2) What obligations do individual countries have with regard to the people of other countries; and (3) What obligations are there for the international community taken as a whole? Let us focus here on the third of these.

QUESTIONS: In the India grain case, the implication is that when resources are abundant, there is a positive obligation to provide life-saving assistance to the needy. In the world taken as a whole, there is abundant wealth. Does this mean that there should be a positive obligation on the international community to provide life-saving assistance to those who are extremely needy? There are several countries that are now very generous when it comes to international humanitarian assistance, and several United Nations agencies, such as the World Food Program, that provide such assistance. However, that assistance is now voluntary. Should it be obligatory? If so, how should it be managed?

If an individual country with surpluses is obligated to feed its poor, shouldn"t the same apply for the world as a whole? Should there be such an obligation even if there are no surpluses in the warehouses, but there is wealth in other forms that would allow them to provide assistance?


There are many good sources that discuss international humanitarian assistance, and international food assistance in particular, but none of them explores the idea that international assistance should be obligatory. However, the following essay, published in a highly conservative newsletter a long time ago, suggests that, at least at some times, the world as a whole has held agricultural surpluses that could be seen as analogous to the surpluses held in India.

Rose, Suzanne, "Food Available, But Not for the Needy", Executive Intelligence Review, November 27, 1992, p. 19.

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