Despite its underlying promise of food-for-all, India's proposed National Food Security Act does not address the structural causes of poverty and hunger.
The path to hell, they say, is paved with good intentions. The way to feed the hungry and impoverished in India – the world’s largest population of hungry and malnourished – also seems to be driven by good intentions. My only worry is that the proposed National Food Security Act should not push the hungry even more deeply into a virtual hell.
The poor and hungry have lived in a dark abyss for over 60 years now, waiting endlessly for their daily morsel of grain. India’s new draft Food Security Bill, with its underlying promise of food-for-all, surely provides a ray of hope for the hungry millions. It could be a new beginning, if enacted properly, and could turn the appalling hunger in India into history.
From what I read in the newspapers, however, and from what is emerging from the hectic parleys that the Food Ministry as well as the Planning Commission are engaged in, the path being developed is unlikely to deviate from the present direction to hell for the hungry. If the primary objective of the new law is simply to re-classify below-poverty-line (BPL) families by identifying who is entitled to receive 25 kg of grain (wheat and rice) per month at a price of Rs 3/kg (approx. 6 US cents), then I think we have missed the very purpose of bringing in a statutory framework to ensure the right to food.
What makes me more apprehensive is the urgency with which the proposed law is being drafted. Meeting the deadline of putting this law into gear in the first ‘100 days’ of UPA-II (the new cabinet of Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh) without first adequately debating the finer details and trying to work out a plausible structure for a long-term food security plan, is fraught with dangers. Merely replicating the Public Distribution System (PDS) in a new avatar will not be sufficient to lift people out of hunger.
Towards Zero Hunger
There have been earlier attempts at fighting hunger. Brazil’s Zero Hunger programme launched by President Lula in 2003, for instance, was the result of a year of inputs from various stake-holders, and is still far away from alleviating hunger. It was launched with the objective of providing three square meals a day to an estimated 46 million people living in hunger and extreme poverty.
By 2005, Brazil had invested US $12 billion in the Zero Hunger programme, although President Lula was not satisfied and later criticised the programme for being riddled with mistakes. Drawing inspiration from the Brazilian programme, Egypt also launched a US $2 billion programme for a food insecure population.
There are further lessons to be drawn from Mexico’s Progresa-oportunidades human development programme launched in 1997, which took one year to research and roughly two years to plan. The programme serves 4.2 million households, and costs almost US $1 billion every year.
Even in the United States, which invests heavily in food stamp programmes, hunger is on the rise. More than 31.6 million people, or one in every 10 Americans, are either a beneficiary of the food stamp programme or takes part in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance programme.
At present, the government of India provides 35 kg of food grains, including wheat and rice, to 65.2 million families classified as living below the poverty line (BPL). These subsidised rations are made available at a price of Rs 4.15 per kg for wheat, and Rs 5.65 per kg for rice. For the 24.3 million families classified under the Antyodya scheme (also part of the BPL category), the price of grains is reduced to Rs 2 for wheat and Rs 3 for rice.
In other words, India’s Public Distribution Scheme technically caters to 316 million people (under BPL). These are the poorest of the poor, and the way the BPL line has been drawn (which in my opinion should be dubbed the ‘starvation line’) the PDS should provide them with their minimal daily food intake. If the PDS had been even partially effective, I see no reason why India should be saddled with the largest population of hungry in the world. There is no reason why the Punjab, for example, the best performing state in terms of hunger, should be ranked below Gabon, Honduras and Vietnam in the Global Hunger Index.
Any programme aimed at providing food-for-all on a long-term basis has to look beyond food stamps and public distribution schemes. India must move to a Zero Hunger programme by attacking the structural causes of poverty and hunger. Creating adequate employment opportunities and promoting sustainable livelihoods by involving the village communities has to be woven into any long-term food security plan. Better health care facilities, access to safe drinking water and sufficient micro-nutrient intake will ensure that food is properly absorbed.
An empty stomach cannot wait. With the passage of time it will inevitably lead to social upheavals, and the repercussions could be still more damaging to society at large. It is so painful to see that while the government is trying to fight the growing menace of naxalism on the one hand, on the other it is actually perpetuating the conditions that help promote extremism. Agriculture is being sacrificed for the sake of industry, mining and exports, and land acquisitions are divesting Indian farmers of their only form of economic security by forcing them to quit agriculture.
The proposed National Food Security Act cannot be a stand-alone activity. It has to be integrated with various other programmes and policy initiatives to ensure that hunger becomes history. To achieve this objective, the food security plan should essentially aim at adopting a five-point approach:
Public Policies for Zero Hunger: A combination of structural policies aimed at the real causes of hunger and poverty, specific policies to meet the household needs for long-term access to food and nutrition, and local policies based on local needs that keep the concept of sustainable livelihoods in focus. For instance, all policies should be aimed at reversing the rural-urban migration. The more migration escalates, the more urban centres will be chocked, and the greater the burden on government support for fighting hunger. Agriculture and rural development remains the best defence against the growing threat of naxalism.
Sustainable livelihoods: In a country where agriculture is the mainstay of the economy, all efforts must be directed towards strengthening low external input sustainable agricultural practices. There is an urgent need to revitalise the natural resource base, restore groundwater levels, and provide higher incomes to farmers. A monthly take-home income package based on land holdings has to be worked out for farmers. The NREGA has to be integrated with agriculture, and the interest on micro-credit for the poorest of the poor has to be brought down to 4 per cent from the existing 20-48 per cent.
Public Distribution System: There is an urgent need to dismantle the PDS except for the Antyodya families (those identified by the Indian government as the poorest of the poor who should receive state-provided wheat and rice). The present classification of BPL and APL (‘below poverty levels’ and ‘above poverty levels’) needs to be done away with. The recommendation of the National Commission on Enterprise in the Unorganised Sector (NCEUS), which states that 836 million people in India spend less than Rs 20 (40 US cents) a day, should be the criteria for a meaningful food-for-all programme. The average ration per family at 25 kg also needs to be revised upwards, and there is a need to expand the food basket by including coarse cereals and pulses.
Foodgrain Banks: The dismantling of the Public Distribution System has to be followed by the setting up of foodgrain banks at the village and taluka level. Any long-term food security plan cannot remain sustainable unless the poor and hungry become partners in the fight against hunger. There are ample examples of successful models of traditional grain banks (for instance, the famed gola system in Bihar), which need to be replicated through a nationwide programme involving self-help groups and NGOs. Programmes and projects must be drawn up to make foodgrain banks sustainable over the long-term and viable without government support in a couple of years, involving charitable institutions, religious bodies, self-help groups (SHGs) and the non-profit organizations to ensure speedy implementation. system in
International commitments: Global commitments and neoliberal economic policies should not be allowed to interfere with the food security plan. The World Trade Organisation (WTO) agreements, the Free Trade Agreements (FTAs) and various bilateral trade deals should not be allowed to displace farming communities and play havoc with national food security. For instance, India cannot compromise agriculture in the ongoing Doha Round of negotiations in the WTO which will allow cheaper and subsidised imports. Importing food for a country like India is like importing unemployment, thereby increasing the number of hungry.