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Balancing Urbanisation and Food Access: Localising Food Systems in Decentralised Planning and Governance in India

Last week, the highly anticipated ‘The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World’ (SOFI) report for 2023 shed light on the urgent need to address the interplay between food systems, urbanisation, and diets. While India stands at a critical juncture given its growing food insecurity and an urban expansion marked by distinct trajectory and aspiration, the country must chart a distinct path that aligns with its unique circumstances. The challenges facing food systems, encompassing production, distribution, and consumption, arise from both top-down approaches and an overarching state-market influence, resulting in spatial fragmentation and a lack of localised solutions.
Embracing a holistic food systems approach within local governance structures is imperative. India must consider integrating food system elements and adopting a circular economy model within its decentralised rural and urban planning and administration to optimise the localisation of food production, distribution, and consumption. This approach not only aligns with climate action obligations and sustainable development goals but also ensures critical health and nutrition concerns.

Diversity and Local in India’s Food System:

India’s food system is diverse, shaped by ecological variations, cultural richness, and a history of migrations and assimilations. Local and regional food practices have traditionally thrived, fostering culinary richness and freshness while emphasising localised governance. However, the impact of modern agricultural research, global food trade monopolies, and state regulations has led to a transformation of the food system, reducing diversity and promoting uniformity. Rural production and rural-urban consumption patterns have become more homogenous and similar. They feature external, unseasonal, and processed foods that travel long distances, add health risks while exacerbating food-access constraints in climate change contexts.

Distinct Urbanisation Trajectory

In India, urbanisation has taken a non-linear path, resulting in cities without sustained economic growth. Cities, defined as dense settlements, experience population and resource reallocation simultaneously. Urbanisation without corresponding economic growth leads to poor living conditions for a significant urban population, which remains food insecure. Urban planning has externalised food concerns while focusing more on housing, transportation, infrastructure, and other amenities. Vacant spaces and open lands suitable for food production ecologically and socio-culturally are often repurposed for other uses and the resultant localisation advantages of improved food access and climate mitigation.

Rural Food Production Spaces and Changing Agrarian Structure:

While a significant portion of India’s rural population remains engaged in food production, land under agriculture and active cultivation have steadily declined since the 1990s due to increasing land use diversion and fallowing, respectively. These changes are more evident around urban agglomerations and small towns. Additionally, agriculture is fast feminising, while an increasing number of female farmers and tenants, engaged in farming, lack formal land access. Despite their contribution to food production, these marginalised groups receive inadequate attention in food production policies, implementation, and investments. 
The changing land tenure regimes, viz. increasing tenancy and informality, as well as land administration priorities, viz. digitisation of land records not necessarily result in updating and syncing with ground tenure situation, significantly influence actors involvement and investments in food production and distribution. However, the connection between land tenure context, land administration system and agriculture and food administration remain limited, both in policy and practice spaces. 
A significant number of urban informal workers and slum dwellers, called cyclic migrants, are part-time agricultural labourers or tenants. They remain vulnerable to food insecurity in their urban abodes, which was abundantly exposed during the COVID-19 crisis. These individuals possess knowledge and skills in food production and distribution which remain unused in their urban destinations.

Food Security Challenges and the Need for Integration:

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, India struggled with a large population deprived of proper nutrition, with 72.2 per cent unable to afford a healthy diet. Urban food insecurity and vulnerability remain a critically unaddressed concern, with public distribution systems not able to meet increasing hunger.
To address these challenges, a comprehensive approach linking Sustainable Development Goals 2 (Zero Hunger) and 11 (Sustainable Cities and Communities) is crucial. The World Bank emphasises the need to reimagine how cities source and produce food, incorporating modern, traditional, and informal routes. Urban land use planning must adapt to facilitate the integration of food systems, moving beyond a purely regulatory and mass movement approach. By developing local and circular food economies, Indian cities can ensure greater access to fresh and diverse foods for its citizen while reducing food miles and global greenhouse gas emissions.

Harnessing the Potential of the Local Spaces in Decentralised Planning and Governance Landscapes

The concept of ‘local’ should drive future trajectories in India’s food systems, bridging the gaps between rural and urban areas. This involves situating production (rural areas), consumption (urban areas), and processing and distribution (peri-urban areas) within a localised framework. By critically engaging with governance, migration, socio-economic growth, and historical factors, cities can develop policy narratives that align with their unique characteristics, departing from overly centralised planning approaches. This approach acknowledges the simultaneous presence of urban, peri-urban, and rural elements, allowing for non-linear transformations.
Local ought to be a focus of a future trajectory in food systems that attempts to bridge the gap between the binary nature of present food systems. This situates the sites of production (rural areas) away from sites of consumption (cities), with processing, distribution, and procurement along with agri-based industries being set up in between (peri-urban). The problematising of local as a policy space can be used to critically engage with aspects of governance, migration, socio-economic growth, physical nature, and history to explore how different cities can create their policy narrative much more suited to the city as compared to a too centralised planning approach (Bhide 2018, pp. 66-67). This rural-urban continuum needs to focus on these in-between sites as a local policy space, where the food system is simultaneously shaped by consumption and production factors that are local and non-local.
There is a need to reimagine and conceptualise the local food system context. The frame of reference should be that food systems are not spread across rural, peri-urban, or urban, but instead localised and situated at scales of processes it entails. Such framing of the system as a local policy space could welcome possibilities for planning by urban and rural local bodies separately and jointly. Land, energy, and water must be understood together in answering what and how much the locals can produce, distribute, and consume, adapting to the nature of these resources and tenure regimes. This local system can have the characteristics of all three present simultaneously (urban, peri-urban, and rural) in a transformation that makes it non-linear.


The SOFI Report 2023 underscores the need to understand South Asia’s urban history and the changing dynamics of city development to address food systems effectively. 
Considering modern, traditional, and informal food systems (World Bank 2017, p. 24), an integrated response is crucial for planning agriculture value chains in urbanisation as a megatrend. In India, cities with urban populations are much lower than the world average, growing due to stable political systems and institutions [and not necessarily shifts in productivity levels]. But how far and fast this growth can adapt and adopt to urbanisation and food system linkages needs serious attention at different levels. By integrating Sustainable Development Goals 2 and 11, India can develop a comprehensive approach to tackle urban food security challenges while embracing the transformative potential of local policy spaces. Through proactive and localised planning, India can navigate the complex dynamics of its agri-food systems, fostering a sustainable and inclusive future.