[The Hindi version of this article is published in the four page pullout Hatskshep in Rashtriya Sahara of Aug 28, 2010. http://rashtriyasahara.samaylive.com/epapermain.aspx?queryed=17]
Food and Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar has turned down the Supreme Court’s suggestion asking the government to ensure free distribution of food grains to the hungry poor instead of allowing it to rot in the godowns of the Food Corporation of India.
"Give it to the hungry poor instead of it (grains) going down the drain," a bench of justice Dalveer Bhandari and justice Deepak Verma said while listening to a petition on the rampant corruption in public distribution system (PDS). This suggestion came almost ten years after the Supreme Court had directed six-hunger prone States – Orissa, Chattisgarh, Rajasthan, Maharashtra, Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh – to reopen closed PDS shops and that too within a week so as the address the problem of mounting hunger.
This was in August 2001. Seven years later, the Supreme Court gave another directive to the government: “devise a scheme where no person goes hungry when the granaries are full and lots being wasted due to non-availability of storage space,” hasn’t had the desired impact. Except for statistical jugglery, the government we all know remains non-committal on its role in eradicating hunger.
As I wrote sometimes back, not only the Supreme Court, even successive Prime Ministers time and again paid a mere lip-sympathy to the poor and hungry. In April 2001, the then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee had said in his inaugural address to a national consultation on “Towards a Hunger Free India” in New Delhi: “Democracy and hunger cannot go together. A hungry stomach questions and censures the system’s failure to meet what is a basic biological need of every human being. There can be no place for hunger and poverty in a modern world in which science and technology have created conditions for abundance and equitable development.”
He said the nation is guided by the commandment of the Upanishads: Annam Bahu Kurvita, literally meaning "multiply food production many fold. Ensure an abundance of food all around." How pious. And yet, all his government did was merely rename and ‘strengthen’ the public distribution system so as to ‘use food stocks in an imaginative and purposeful way’ to stabilise prices and boost exports.
The shocking paradox of the number of people living in hunger multiplying amidst overflowing food godowns has put the nation to shame. India ranks abysmally low – at ranking 66th among 88 countries -- in the Global Hunger Index.
Howsoever the governments swear in the name of hungry and the poor, the fact remains that it is not a national priority. Amidst the talk of bringing in a National Food Security Act, politicians of all political parties, without exception, have been busy talking about disinvestment and land acquisitions. Policy makers spend more time with industrialists and business houses, or hobnobbing with the diplomats in the cocktail circuits.
The debate on the National Food Security Act has not moved beyond the quantity of grains to be made available to each household falling under the category of ‘below the poverty line’ (BPL). While the Ministry of Food and Agriculture has expressed its inability to provide subsidised grain to those living above the poverty line, the National Advisory Council headed by Sonia Gandhi too is at a loss to find a suitable pathway to address hunger.
Unfortunately, what is not being understood is that hunger, agriculture and food security are related. These cannot be viewed separately. The National Food Security Act in reality does not look beyond food entitlements, the monthly ration quota that the poor needs to be given at a subsidised rate. Food Security on the other hand cannot be viewed without sustainable agriculture and it is here that the National Food Security Act fails miserably to draw a linkage.
In fact, I find there is a terrible confusion on the food security front. On the one hand the government is thinking of encouraging the private sector to cultivate oilseeds and pulses in neighbouring countries like Myanmar, and also in Latin America and then import it into India; and on the other it has launched a Rs 4,883-crore National Food Security Mission to bolster production of wheat, rice, oilseeds and pulses.
Strangely, the National Food Security Mission has nothing to do with the proposed National Food Security Act. Not many experts who swear in the name of food security ever relate it to the National Food Security Mission.
In fact, setting up a time-bound National Food Security Mission by enhancing production of wheat, rice, pulses and edible oils comes at a time when the UPA-II government itself is lowering the custom tariff thereby allowing cheaper imports. Take the case of edible oils. India was almost self-sufficient in edible oils in 1993-94. Ever since the government began lowering the tariffs, edible oil imports have multiplied turning the country into the biggest importer. Small farmers growing oilseeds and that too in the rainfed areas of the country had to abandon production in the light of cheaper imports.
I think there is something terribly wrong somewhere. The government has been steadily reducing the import tariffs on edible oils to make it cheaper for the domestic consumers thereby destroying the production capacity within the country. At the same time, it intends to pump in resources to improve productivity of oilseeds in the hope that the imports of edible oils can be reduced in the years to come. How can this be possible? Does it not mean that the government programmes in reality work at a cross-purpose?
On another front, land acquisition has become a politically motivated issue. While all kinds of options are being thrown up regarding how to make land acquisition economically worthwhile for the displaced, no one is talking of its impact on food security. If the land continues to be gobbled up at the prevailing rate, where will the country produce food for its growing population?
Don't worry. The National Food Security Act hai naa, goes the common refrain.