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Overhaul policies that acerbate hunger
By Devinder Sharma

India has several programmes to fight hunger but none has been effective. Unless we change the policies responsible for poverty and spread of hunger, National Food Security Act would become another piece of legislation incapable of making any difference to those who live in hunger and penury.

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Hunger is more widespread in India than its middle class believes

In 2009, IFPRI ranked India 66th in Global Hunger Index for 88 countries. Hunger multiplied at a time when we had the bogus Public Distribution System operative, made more efficient by the addition of the prefix 'targetted', and we also had the office of Food Commissioner (set up in response to a petition in Supreme Court) monitoring the food distribution supplies. Hunger and malnutrition grew at a time when we had more anganwadis set up, and more schools being provided with mid-day meals.

Now, the government is proposing a National Food Security Bill to ensure that every poor family gets a minimum of 35 kg of foodgrains at Rs 3/kg. But, can we remove hunger by distributing cheap ration among poor through PDS? The answer is a big NO.

Hunger needs more than PDS ration, and that is where we are failing to focus on. Even the Right to Food campaign has failed to see beyond the entitlements, and its approach is no different from what the bureaucracy in the Ministry of Food has been recommending. Unless we remove the structural causes that acerbate hunger, and most of these relate to agriculture and management of natural resources, India would not be able to make any significant difference in reducing hunger.

Failure of delivery system

Hunger is basically outcome of our wrong policies and our inability to accept that the delivery system is not delivering. At present more than 20 government programmes exist to fight hunger and to provide food and nutritional security. These programs run by various Ministries range from Mid-day Meal Programme to National Food Security Mission, and Antyodaya Anna Yojna to Annapoorna Yojna.

However, despite such impressive programmes already running, and increased budget allocation for these every year, the poor still go hungry. The number of hungry and impoverished has increased with every passing year. UNICEF tells us that more than 5000 children die every day in India from malnourishment.

Therefore, to add another couple of schemes to the existing lot is certainly not going to make it any better for the hungry. Nor a mere tinkering of the approach will help. Replacing the ration cards for the PDS allocations with food stamps is one such misplaced initiative. If we persist with such borrowed ideas, hunger will continue to multiply.

I am a strong supporter of the right-based approach to fight hunger. But another piece of legislation that enshrines Right to Food as the basic human right is not going to make any difference to those who live in hunger and penury, and to the millions who are added to this dreaded list year after year. Right to Food cannot be ensured by simply ensuring on paper half the food entitlements (which has even failed to reach the needy) that a human body needs for normal human activity and growth.

Knowing that the existing programmes and projects have failed to make any appreciable dent, it is high time the opportunity provided by the proposed National Food Security Act be utilised in a realistic manner. It is a great opportunity, and we will let down the nation if we fail to bring about a radical overhaul of the existing approach to fight hunger. The entire debate has to therefore shift from the hands of a few bureaucrats and self-appointed experts who have monopolised any decision-making on hunger. It has to be taken to the nation, through a series of regional deliberations.

Poverty line

First and foremost, the time has come to draw a realistic poverty line. The Tendulkar Committee has suggested that 37 per cent of our population is living in poverty. Arjun Sengupta Committee had said that 77 per cent of the population (or 836 million people) is able to spend not more than Rs 20/day. Justice D P Wadhwa Committee has now recommended that anyone earning less than Rs 100 a day should be considered below the poverty line.

National Food Security Act provides a great opportunity, and we will let down the nation if we fail to bring about a radical overhaul of the existing approach to fight hunger.

Knowing that India has one of the most stringent poverty line in the world, I think the fault begins by accepting the faulty projections. During Prime Minister Narasimha Rao's tenure, Planning Commission had even lowered the poverty estimates from 37 per cent to 19 per cent. Poverty estimates were restored back when the new Planning Commission took over. I am sure if we had persisted with the same poverty line of 19 per cent (in the beginning of 1990s), India would have banished hunger in official records by now.

But the tragedy is that none of the numerous committees, economic surveys and even the Supreme Court's advisory body on Right to Food had highlighted the dire need to change the poverty line to a more meaningful figure if the issue of growing hunger has to be nipped in the bud.

It doesn't help in continuing with faulty estimates. I therefore suggest that India should have two lines demarcating the percentage of absolute hungry and malnourished from those who are not so hungry. The Suresh Tendulkar Committee suggestion of 37 per cent should be taken as the new Hunger line, which needs low-cost food grains as an emergency entitlement. In addition, the Arjun Sengupta committee's cut-off at 77 per cent should be the new Poverty line.

Once we have set these criteria, the approach for tackling absolute hunger and poverty would be different.

Zero Hunger

Like in Brazil, the time has come when India needs to formulate a Zero Hunger programme. This should aim at a differential approach. I see no reason why people should go hungry in the villages, which produce enough food for the country year after year. These villages have to be made hunger-free by adopting a community-based localised food grain bank scheme. I agree with Ela Bhatt when she says that the village needs should be met from within a 100-km radius.

In the urban centres and the food deficit areas, a universal public distribution system is required. The existing PDS system also requires to be overhauled. Also, there is a dire need to involve social and religious organisations in food distribution. They have done a remarkable job in cities like Bangalore, and there are lessons to be imbibed.

Fast economic growth has failed to reduce hunger in India

Food for all

It is often argued that the government cannot foot the bill for feeding each and every Indian. This is far from true. Estimates have shown that the country would require 60 million tonnes of foodgrains (@35 kg per family) if it follows a Universal Public Distribution System. In other words, Rs. 1.10 lakh crore is required to feed the nation for a year.

The proposed National Food Security bill actually reduced the family food intake that has to be supplied through the public distribution system (PDS) from 35 kg to 25 kg per family. To the BPL families, the 25 kg of foodgrains will be supplied at Rs. 3 per kg, which means in actual terms the government has very cleverly reduced the food subsidy.

If the government could provide Rs. 3.5 lakh crore as economic stimulus to the industry, and also provide for Rs. 5 lakh crore as revenue foregone in the 2010-11 fiscal, which are the sops and tax concessions to the industry and business, how can the government say it has no money to fight hunger?

From the projected allocation of Rs. 56,000 crore for 2010-11, the expenditure on food will come down to an estimated Rs. 25,428 crore. What a shame! In a country, which fares much worse than sub-Saharan Africa when it comes to hunger and malnutrition, the government is trying to save money instead of fighting hunger.

The government somehow gives an impression that the country does not have the money to feed the hungry. Nothing can be further away from truth. If the government could provide Rs. 3.5 lakh crore as economic stimulus to the industry (actually the industry did not need it), and also provide for Rs. 5 lakh crore as revenue foregone in the 2010-11 fiscal, which are the sops and tax concessions to the industry and business, how can the government say it has no money. The annual Budget exercise is of roughly Rs. 11 lakh crores. Which means, the government is subsidising industrialists almost 50 per cent of it by way of direct sops, in addition to the what is provided in the Budget itself. The support by way of 'revenue foregone' is basically 'under the table' payment, since it lies outside the Budget allocations.

I suggest that Rs. 3 lakh crore from the 'revenue foregone' be immediately withdrawn. This should provide resources for feeding the hungry, and also for ensuring assured supply of safe drinking water plus sanitation. In addition to wheat and rice, the food allocation should also include nutritious coarse cereals and pulses.

Policy changes

But all this is not possible, unless some other policy changes are introduced to put the emphasis on long-term sustainable farming, and to stop land acquisitions and privatisation of natural resources. We need policies that ensure food for all for all times to come. This is what constitutes inclusive growth. A hungry population is a great economic loss resulting from the inability of the manpower to undertake economic activities. The debate on the proposed National Food Security Bill provides us an excellent opportunity to recast the economic map of India in such a way that makes hunger history.

Are we ready?

The views expressed above are personal and do not necessarily reflect the views of d-sector editorial team.

Devinder Sharma  |  hunger55@gmail.com

Devinder Sharma is an award-winning journalist, writer, and researcher globally recognised for his analysis on food, agriculture and trade policy. 

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Feedback /Comments on this article
Increase income to make food affordable

I feel ensuring food security for under privileged is a social security measure, taken up on taxpayers money, an exercise that is open to logical audit. The emphasis of our law makers should not be that everyone has food to eat, but that everyone can afford to buy the food to eat. No development unit can progress in which few people are earners, while others are only consumers. Providing rice and wheat at Rs. 3/- a k.g. will always have a hidden cost on remaining consumers. In the background of it, I feel NREGA, and Right to Education were right moves in the direction of economic security. People should have disposable income, and there should be availability of food items in the market at affordable price. Black marketers artificially inflate the food prices, and furthermore there is 40% wastage in crops, including vegetables due to inefficient logistics and transportation. Government should hit the right problem, and hit it hard. But at the end of the day, our politicians see hungry as a vote bank!

Posted By: Neeraj Kataria
Dated: Tuesday, April 06, 2010

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Human Development  > Food > Hunger and Malnutrition

Empty rhetoric for empty stomachs
Sunday, July 18, 2010

The establishment needs to think beyond entitlements to completely remove hunger and malnutrition from India. Unfortunately, the proposed National Food Security Act fails to inspire much confidence.
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The bad news is that corruption has not only sustained but has grown in size and stature in the country. With scams being a regular feature, seventy per cent respondents in a survey have rightfully opined that corruption has continued to increase in India. One in every two interviewed admit having paid a bribe for availing public services during last one year. Transparency International's latest survey reveals that the political parties top the chart for the most corrupt public institutions, followed by police force and legislatures. No wonder, India continues to make new records on the global corruption arena!

The shocking revelation is that the health and education sectors haven't remained untouched by this phenomenon. With 5th and 6th positions respectively for these sectors on the public perception chart on corruption, corruption has crept insidiously into these sectors of hope for the masses. With bureaucracy being fourth in the list of corrupt institutions in the country, corruption seems to have been non-formally institutionalized with little hope if public services would ever be effective in the country. With economic growth having literally institutionalized corruption, are we now expecting corrupt to be socially responsible - a different CSR.

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Not giving 'aid' to India is one thing but calling it 'rich' is quite another. If one in three of the world's malnourished children live in India, what does average daily income of $3 indicate? It perhaps means that there is a relative decline in poverty - people are 'less poor' than what they used to be in the past. But having crossed the World Bank arbitrary threshold of $2 a day does not absolve the 'developed' countries of their obligation to part with 0.7 per cent of their Gross National Income in development aid. Should this three-decade old figure not be revised?  

An interesting debate in UK's House of Commons delved on future of development assistance by the British Government. While prioritizing limited resources has been a concern, there has been no denying the fact that development aid must be guided towards tangible gains over a short period of time to start with. There are difficult choices for elected governments to make - should they invest in long-term primary education or in short-term university scholarships? Which of these will bring gains and trigger long-term transformation in the society. As politicians continue to be divided on the matter, poverty persists!!   

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