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.
For a country which has the largest population of hungry in the world, and given that half of all children in India is 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 existing 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 members had made meaningful suggestions, there is no reason why the NAC wouldn’t have made 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. In any case, I feel the the universal food entitlement approach can wait. 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. The best way forward is to start by feeding the poor first, and then move to the above the poverty line.
The challenge is to first feed the hungry. According to ICMR norms, each able-body adult needs a minimum of 14 kg a month. Given that an average family comprise five members, each household would need 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 much 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 3kg 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.
Local production and local procurement is the key to any successful food security initiative. The proposed National Food Security Act (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 simply create 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. Earlier, 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 sure 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. Let us for once nip the evil in the bud. #