Zero Hour Hunger

The only worry is that the proposed National Food Security Act of the Congress-led regime should not push the hungry deeper into a virtual hell
Devinder Sharma Delhi

The path to hell, they say, is paved with good intentions. The way to feed the hungry and impoverished in India - and I am talking of the world's largest population of hungry and malnourished - too seems to be driven by good intentions. My only worry is that the proposed National Food Security Act should not push the hungry deeper into a virtual hell.

For over 60 years now, the poor and hungry have lived in a dark abyss, waiting endlessly for their daily morsel of grain. The new food security law, with the underline promise of food-for-all, surely, provides a ray of hope for the hungry millions. It can be a new beginning, if enacted properly, and can turn appalling hunger into history.

From what I read in the newspapers, and what is emerging from the hectic parleys that the Union food ministry as well as the Planning Commission are engaged in, the path being developed is unlikely to deviate from the direction to hell. If re-classifying below-poverty-line (BPL) families by identifying the real poor who are entitled to 25 kg of grain (wheat and rice) at Rs 3/kg is the primary objective, than we have missed the very purpose of bringing in a statutory framework to ensure the right to food.

What makes it 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 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 pull out the hungry from a man-made vicious circle in the margins, designed over the years by the power establishment at the top.

At present, the government provides 35 kg of foodgrains, 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, PDS on paper caters to 316 million people. These are the poorest of the poor, and the way the BPL line has been drawn (which should be basically called a 'starvation line'), the PDS should be providing them their daily need. 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 Punjab, for instance, 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 PDS. India must move to a Zero Hunger programme by attacking the structural cause of poverty and hunger.

Creating adequate employment opportunities and promoting sustainable livelihoods by involving the village communities have to be woven in any long-term food security plan. Better healthcare 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 lead to social upheavals and the repercussions can be more damaging to society. It is so painful to see that while the government is trying to fight the growing menace of naxalism, it actually is creating conditions that helps promote extremism. Agriculture is being sacrificed for the sake of industry, mining and exports, land acquisition is divesting the people from their only economic security and farmers are being forced 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 keeping the concept of sustainable livelihood in focus. For instance, all policies should be aimed at reversing rural-urban migration. The more the migration, more urban centres will be choked and more will be 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 to strengthen 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. The present classification of BPL and APL need to be done away with. The recommendation of the National Commission on Enterprise in Unorganised Sector, which states that 836 million Indian people are able to spend only a paltry sum of less than Rs 20 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 PDS has to be followed by 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. We need to draw up programmes and projects that have long-term sustainability and become viable without government support in a couple of years, involving charitable institutions, religious bodies, self help groups, and non-profit organisations to ensure speedy implementation.

 International commitments: Global commitments and neo-liberal economic policies should not be allowed to interfere with the food security plan. The 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 WTO and allow cheaper and subsidised imports. Importing food for a country like India is like importing unemployment thereby adding on to hunger.

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: JULY 2009