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Empty rhetoric for empty stomachs
By Devinder Sharma

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.


How long the poor and the hungry will have to wait for their miseries to end?
(photo: Gaurav Sharma)

There can be nothing more disappointing. After 63 years of Independence, the Sonia Gandhi-led National Advisory Council (NAC) has also expressed its helplessness in feeding the country's hungry.

The hungry must live in hunger. That's the clear verdict.

For a country which has the largest population of hungry in the world, and given that half of all children in India are under-nourished according to the National Family Health Survey III (2005-06), I was expecting Sonia Gandhi to spell out a time-bound programme to make hunger history, and at the same time overhaul the corruption-ridden public distribution system (PDS). But from what we read in the newspapers, the NAC recommendations will not make any significant difference to the life of millions of hungry and malnourished.

From what I gather, Sonia Gandhi did probably make the effort. But it is her NAC team which failed to match her enthusiasm. If the NAC members had meaningful ideas and suggestions, there is no reason why the NAC couldn't make the right recommendations. Come to think of it, the NAC recommendations will only bring cheers to the grain traders.

Promising to provide 35 kg of foodgrains at Rs 3/kg to below the poverty line population, and ensuring 25 kg of grains to the APL households in 2000-poorest blocks in the country, is actually a clever move to move away from universalisation of food entitlements. I have never been in favour of a universal food entitlement approach. The middle class is capable of feeding itself. If they can buy swanky cars and consumer durables at the drop of a hat, they can also meet their food requirements.

Unlike India, which exports foodgrains and other agricultural commodities by keeping its own people hungry, China has emerged as a major importer of food and agricultural products primarily to feed its teeming millions.

The challenge is to feed the hungry. According to ICMR norms, each able-body person needs a minimum of 14 kg a month. Given that an average family comprise five members, each household would need 60-70 kg of grains. By providing 35 kg only, we are ensuring that the hungry remain perpetually hungry. They continue to sleep with an empty stomach. In any case, this quantity was being made available to them earlier too. The purpose of bringing in a National Food Security Act (NFSA) is not to simply legitimise what was being delivered through the bogus PDS all these years.

The argument against increasing the food allocations is that the annual procurement on an average is around 50 million tonnes and by promising more than 35 kg per household, the government will fail to provide the entitlement. Well, in my understanding this is merely an apology. Although food production in India remains stagnant over the years, and even then much of the procured foodgrains rot for want of proper storage, the fact remains that given an attractive price, Indian farmers are capable of doubling production.

Let us look at China. Its population is approximately 200 million more than that of India. Against India's foodgrain production of 230 million tonnes, China produces 500 million tonnes of foodgrains. Even with more than double food production, it imports huge quantities every year to meet the domestic needs. Unlike India, which exports foodgrains and other agricultural commodities by keeping its own people hungry, China has emerged as a major importer of food and agricultural products primarily to feed its teeming millions.

In India, the average per capita availability of foodgrains is less than 500 gm a day. On the other hand, China provides six times more at 3 kg per day. No wonder, while India is trying to ride the high-growth trajectory with empty stomachs and emaciated bodies, China is building a healthy nation knowing well that a well-fed population is not only a political necessity but makes strong social and economic sense.

Also, agriculture and food security is the first line of defence against insurgency. Resurrecting agriculture therefore should have been the first step to ensure long-term food security.

I had therefore expected Sonia Gandhi to have over-ruled the mandarins from the Planning Commission, as well as from the Ministry of Food and Agriculture, to lay out a blueprint for feeding the country for all times to come by incorporating measures like extending sustainable farming practices which do not acerbate the environmental crisis, and also making agriculture economically viable; by redesigning trade and development policies that do not open the floodgates to highly subsidised agricultural commodities, and also shifting the focus from corporate agriculture back to making small farms profitable and environmentally sustainable.

There is no justification for India to fare below Sub-Saharan Africa in hunger and poverty rankings. Most of the African nations are torn by strife and have unstable governments. If those African countries had stable governments like India, I am afraid India would have been relegated to the bottom of the pile.

Local production and local procurement is the key to any successful food security initiative. The proposed NFSA therefore should be overarching enough to incorporate suitable policies and plans that not only cuts into the domain of the Ministry of Food and Agriculture, but also extends to Ministry of Environment & Forests as well as the Ministry of Science & Technology. It will require an overall economic policy shift to ensure that agricultural land is not acquired for the industry, and technologies like GM crops are not thrust upon the farming communities.

Knowing that enhancing production remains outside the ambit of the NFSA, merely making a mention of it will not help. If the objective is to make some political appointments by creation a new position of Food Commissioner (with the rank of a Supreme Court judge) at the national level, and a series of State Commissioners (with the rank of a High Court judge), then the basic objective of feeding the hungry is lost.

Although the NFSA has created a new category of "socially vulnerable" it is not sure as to how will that be implemented. On the contrary, it leaves a lot of room for misappropriation and corruption. The better option should have been to extend the 'below the poverty line' to 55 per cent of the population so as to also include those who are on the margins.

In fact, this would be in tune with the latest multi-dimensional poverty estimates developed by the Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative for the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). Accordingly, eight States - Bihar, Chhatisgarh, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Orissa, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal - have more desperately poor people than 26 poorest African nations. As per the last count, India ranked 66th in the Global Hunger Index prepared for 88 countries.

There is no justification for India to fare below Sub-Saharan Africa in hunger and poverty rankings. Most of the African nations are torn by strife and have unstable governments. If those African countries had stable governments like India, I am afraid India would have been relegated to the bottom of the pile. I don't know how long we Indians can remain indifferent to growing hunger and malnutrition. Sadly, the NAC, after raising a lot of expectation in the beginning about the intent and scope of NFSA, has again failed to hit the nail on its head.

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. 

Write to the Author  |  Write to d-sector  |  Editor's Note

 Other Articles by Devinder Sharma in
Human Development  > Food > Hunger and Malnutrition

Overhaul policies that acerbate hunger
Wednesday, March 31, 2010

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.
 Other Articles in Human Development
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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.

Poor. Who?

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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