India: Make Hunger History

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 program launched by President Lula in 2003, for instance, was the result of a year of inputs from various stakeholders, 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 program, although President Lula was not satisfied and later criticized the program for being riddled with mistakes. Drawing inspiration from the Brazilian program, Egypt also launched a US $2 billion program for a food insecure population.

There are further lessons to be drawn from Mexico’s Progresa-oportunidades human development program launched in 1997, which took one year to research and roughly two years to plan. The program serves 4.2 million households, and costs almost US $1 billion every year.

Even in the United States, which invests heavily in food stamp program, 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 program or takes part in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance program.

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 subsidized 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. 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 program 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 program 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 program 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 centers will be chocked, and the greater the burden on government support for fighting hunger. Agriculture and rural development remains the best defense 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 revitalize 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 Unorganized 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 program. 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 program involving self-help groups and NGOs. Program 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.

* International commitments: Global commitments and neoliberal economic policies should not be allowed to interfere with the food security plan. The World Trade Organization (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 subsidized imports. Importing food for a country like India is like importing unemployment, thereby increasing the number of hungry.

Devinder Sharma is a New Delhi-based food and trade policy analyst. He is a regular contributor to Share the World's Resources (STWR), where this article originally appeared, and can be reached at Read other articles by Devinder, or visit Devinder's website.

2 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. Don Hawkins said on July 11th, 2009 at 10:00am #

    Zeenews Bureau

    New Delhi, July 10: Union Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar warned on Friday that North India was facing drought-like situation. The minister said deficient rains across the region have created serious problems for states like Punjab, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, including national capital New Delhi.

    Rainfall for the country in June was 48.8 mm against a normal of 101.7 mm with a deficiency of 52 percent. In northwest India, it was 21 mm, almost 48 percent deficient.

    Water levels in India’s 81 main reservoirs more than halved to 16.003 billion cubic metres (bcm) from 37.301 bcm a year ago, according to government data for the week ending July 8.

    The water level was 51.5 percent lower than the average in the past decade and a senior government scientist said that if rains in the months ahead are not enough to fill up reservoirs, irrigated winter crops such as wheat and rapeseed will be hit.

    “If the reservoir level does not improve by end-August, then winter-sown crops would be affected, but it is too early to say anything,” said AK Singh, deputy director general at the Indian Council of Agricultural Research.

    Lower water level in reservoirs would also hit hydro power which accounts for a quarter of India’s total power generation of 149,400 megawatts. Zeenews

    Will this get better in the future no it sure will not. China same in many parts of the country. It’s called climate change and say by 2020 very deep do do. Don’t feel alone as in the States California looks to be first then the Great plains mid west. There is still time if we act now and so far in the States acting and not very good acting is the game.

  2. Don Hawkins said on July 12th, 2009 at 5:05am #

    The UN has warned for many years that water shortages will become one of the most pressing problems on the planet over the coming decades, with one report estimating that four billion people will be affected by 2050. What is happening in India, which has too many people in places where there is not enough water, is a foretaste of what is to come. UK

    Read the news story that is about India today this moment right now and think about the little fact that this will happen Worldwide. In the States California and Mid West first. Water wars and it will not be pretty. Any plans being put in place so far for this, ah no and why. To me the thinking is to bring the system back to normal sorry that will not happen but they try anyway. Draconian measures are needed to try and the system needs to change about 180 degrees. Like World War Two but harder. In most areas on the Planet drought and in fewer places to much water. This is starting for real now and most will start to see. We need to start a War and this time not guns or bombs but knowledge and hard work.