Policy Process under COVID-19: Lessons from Food System Reforms in India
COVID-19 presents both challenges as well as opportunities to catalyze policy changes that can facilitate the speedy transformation of the food system in developing countries. Recently the USAID supported Feed the Future Food security policy innovation laboratory developed a framework named “Kaleidoscope Model of Policy Change” to understand the policy change process under various policy contexts. According to the model, unexpected shocks to the routine system - COVID-19 pandemic in this setting, engenders immediate and sudden policy changes to adapt to the situation. So, while the pandemic has severely impaired the entire ecosystem of the food system, right from the non-availability of farm laborers up to the stagnation of exports due to port harbor closures, it also presents opportunities to use the heightened problems resulting from the pandemic as a pressure point to introduce policy innovations in the food system. This premise depends on how the country generally responds to the health emergency. The capacity to respond and to turn the tide in the food system is determined by the nature and functioning of the policy process in the developing countries. In this blog, we explore the implications of the policy process under the COVID-19 pandemic, on the food system reforms using the specific case of India.
With the advent of COVID-19, the poor have been exposed to multi-dimensional vulnerabilities like never before. Many policymakers in developing countries have expressed fears that unless appropriate policies and programs are put in place, we may backslide on the progress made towards food security and nutrition. Generally, it is the interaction between the actors and players of the policy system to bring about policy changes that guide the policymakers to design and implement appropriate policies. Specific to this context, some key questions are explored by policymakers. How does the Policy System respond, and what are the policy responses to changes in the Food System arising from COVID-19? What is needed to smoothen the policymaking process? Can we use COVID-19 as an opportunity to strengthen policy systems? How to prepare for the next round of natural or human-made shocks? We examine them briefly below.
The COVID-19 pandemic is characterized as a health emergency with high levels of spillover effects into other sectors. It begins with the health status of the population and the burden on the health system. Then the unique problem of social distancing has shut off human mobility to the point of crippling the entire economy, which includes the food and agricultural system. Several interventions have been introduced to mitigate the negative impact of the pandemic on the food system outcomes. The policy system responded to the pandemic situation by intertwining the health and food system to address the common challenges as they are now increasingly becoming dependent on each other. Further, bouncing back from these shocks has implications for how we use policy, institutions, technology, governance, human capacity in the future as well. Here we focus on food and policy system reforms as a possible opportunity to revive from COVID-19.
The countries’ policy response to the COVID-19 in the food and agricultural system transformation depends on the nature of the policy system and the functioning of the policy process. Some countries have responded with reactionary policies, while others have linked the food system responses to the overall existing programs through enhancing them. The response was also acclimated to the countries’ early warning systems on food emergencies and the use of data from such systems for designing or strengthening the safety net interventions. Yet, there are two challenges at the country level. The initial problem is that often there is a lack of coordination and harmonization of the data systems to use the information to produce policy knowledge and translating that knowledge into specific programmatic information for the implementation of the interventions. Such disharmony affects the data and evidence-based policymaking within the country. In the context of COVID-19, however, the policy research community has been producing quick information on the nature and impact of the COVID-19 on various segments of the food systems. There have been several consultative meetings, debates, and dialogues at the global, regional, and national levels, mostly conducted online. Next is a common problem that the policy information generated is seldom implemented, and this remains unclear in the COVID-19 situation as well. This lack of clarity is also because the governments are currently prioritizing improving health infrastructure and basic food safety net. The ‘policy windows’ for reforming the food system in the context of COVID-19 would open up only for a short while, and by then, unless the process of policymaking is fully understood, this opportunity may be missed in the context of food system policy changes.
Several opportunities exist for reforming food systems while responding to COVID-19. Reviewing the existing policies for improvements that could be made by refining them and fixing the implementation challenges are opportunities that COVID-19 presents to the policy process in any developing country. For example, review of food safety regulations and institutions, programs for preventing food losses during post-harvest and post-consumption stages, strengthening the crop procurement and subsidized food distribution system, understanding the consumption patterns to avert hunger and micronutrient malnutrition among the vulnerable segments of the population, and reducing the intake of fat, sugar, salt and increasing the consumption of nutrient-dense foods are some interventions. COVID-19 also presents an opportunity to change the behavior of the population towards hygiene and sanitation practices and introduce WASH programs to sustain such behavior change.
In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, for example, many countries have been developing policy and program interventions to protect the poor and vulnerable from food insecurity and hunger. The case of India is illustrative to see how policy changes can happen under the pressure of responding to shocks such as COVID-19. Developing countries have invested in strengthening the already existing safety net programs. For example, India is currently implementing enhanced access to the public food distribution system, school nutrition programs, and preschool nutrition programs. Another policy intervention has been to identify opportunities to increase employment and livelihood opportunities through income transfer programs. Public works program and employment guarantee schemes repurposed to meet the purchasing power of the vulnerable households would be an example, as in the case of increasing food access through intensifying employment opportunities and income transfer under the National Employment Guarantee Act program – MGNREGA. Further, farmers’ supply of perishable commodities to the markets, on the one hand, while market access to poor consumers in remote areas, on the other hand, has been severely affected by the lockdown imposed due to COVID-19. The government is looking for ways to address this problem as well as improving health and nutritional outcomes through policy interventions.
From the perspective of using the COVID-19 health emergency to address the long-standing policy reforms needed for the efficient functioning of food markets, Indian policymakers have been exemplary. Three key policy changes as a response to COVID-19 illustrate this achievement in policymaking. First is the removal of the restrictions in the movement of agricultural commodities that were imposed by the Essential Commodity Act for the past six decades. This major policy reform helps in the deregulation of prices of essential products, including cereals, pulses, edible oil, oilseeds, onions, and potatoes. It allows increased opportunities for the private sector to come and make new investments in the agriculture sector, particularly in the storage and distribution systems. It further increases the competition in agricultural markets and benefits both the producer and the consumer.
The second significant policy intervention is the opening up of the markets for the farmers by abolishing the Agricultural Produce and Market Committee Act breaking the monopoly of the local traders, and opening up markets for farmers. Now farmers are free to sell anywhere in the country. While this will help in the efficient functioning of the markets, it also creates competition and choices in agricultural markets. Both consumers and producers benefit through exchange determined prices.
The third major policy intervention is setting up a legal framework for contract framing by the introduction of the Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Ordinance. The law ensures that the risk from price fluctuation is borne by the buyer and not the farmer as both the parties can enter into a contract in the pre-harvest season for a fixed crop price. The transfer of modern technology and inputs from the buyer to the farmer can be facilitated under the law. This law ensures that farmers aren’t exploited by buyers like wholesalers, exporters, agri-business firms, or processors while simultaneously improving productivity at a low cost, aided by the buyers.
In the context of India, for example, policy researchers have insisted on such policy changes in the agricultural markets for the past three decades, since the economic reforms in the 1990s. In developing countries, often, the policy process is overpowered by those actors who opposed any reform in the food sector. Political economy issues play a significant role in liberalizing agricultural markets. The India case shows that the COVID-19 pandemic shook the policy systems up to better outcomes, even after evidence produced by several taskforces and commissions failed to bring about the badly needed policy change. There is a real opportunity for policy change when the policymakers use a crisis.
Assuming the government of India will implement these policy changes, the Indian policymaking process during the COVID-19 responses has implications for policymaking in developing countries. Resulting from a major event, it shows that a crisis in the health system could trigger policy reforms in the food system, as they are highly becoming interconnected under – one health one world – framework. This inter-connected nature has implications for broader policy reforms for food system transformation in developing and developed countries.