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The main issue is peoples inability to secure essentials

Published : Apr 23, 2010 00:00 IST

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Jean Dreze: A range of complementary interventions needed.-V. SUDERSHAN

Jean Dreze: A range of complementary interventions needed.-V. SUDERSHAN

Jean Dreze is a development economist, originally from Belgium but settled in India since 1979. He became an Indian citizen in 2002. Dreze did his PhD in economics at the Indian Statistical Institute, New Delhi, and has since worked on several issues like hunger, famine, gender inequality, child health and education, and the NREGA. He has worked extensively in Indian villages and has co-authored several books with Nobel laureate Amartya Sen, including Hunger and Public Action and The Political Economy of Hunger and India: Development and Participation. Dreze has been actively involved with the Right to Food campaign in India. He has taught at the London School of Economics and the Delhi School of Economics and is a visiting professor at the Department of Economics, Allahabad University. Excerpts from an interview:

The Green Revolution increased Indias food production so as to achieve a level of self-sufficiency. What then, according to you, has gone wrong at the policy level that even after six decades of Independence, ma

Firstly, I would not agree that India is self-sufficient in food production. It looks self-sufficient only because food intake is abysmally low, not only in terms of quantity but also in terms of quality. For Indians to eat like the Chinese, let alone the French or the Italians, there will have to be a lot more food around. Having said this, low food production is not the main issue, and food production itself would easily go up if there were enough purchasing power among the masses. The main issue is peoples inability to secure essential things that are required for good nutrition. These include not only food but also other inputs such as clean water, health care, sanitation, basic education and child care. All these fields of public policy have been grossly neglected for a long time.

Recently in the Madhya Pradesh State Assembly, Health Minister Anup Mishra admitted to 1,22,422 child deaths between 2005-06 and 2008-09. However, according to the States infant mortality rate of 70/1,000 live b

As I understand it, the Ministers figure actually referred to deaths of malnutrition-affected children, so it is not necessarily inconsistent with your own figure. How the Minister arrived at such a precise figure, based on such a vague concept as malnutrition-affected, I do not know. But in any case, even his figure is awful enough. I dont think there is much scope for face-saving as far as child under-nutrition is concerned the facts are really stark.

In most tribal areas, coarse grains such as bajra, kodo and kutki are consumed. Instead of distributing wheat and rice in a generalised manner, should the public distribution system (PDS) cater to region/community-specific food patterns? Will that help address the malnutrition problem effectively?

It would be a good idea for so-called coarse grains, better described as nutritious grains, to be included in the public distribution system. Indeed, in some areas, the main effect of the PDS today is to displace nutritious grains in favour of wheat or rice without any net increase in food intake. It would make sense to subsidise nutritious grains.

Does the NREGA, as a source of livelihood, have the potential to address malnutrition, considering the fact that implementation of the Act has been fraught with problems in several States?

The NREGA can certainly help, and it does. In a recent survey of 1,000 NREGA workers conducted in 10 districts of North India, 69 per cent of the respondents felt that the NREGA had helped them to avoid hunger [see The Battle for Employment Guarantee, Frontline, January 2009]. But even if the NREGA functioned really well, which is not the case, it would have a limited impact on the nutrition situation, for many reasons. Some people are unable to participate in NREGA work because of illness, disability, old age, and so on. Those who do participate earn a meagre income at best, even if they work for 100 days in the year. And most importantly, good nutrition is not a matter of income alone. This applies especially to child nutrition, which is the foundation of good nutrition for all.

Even among households that are relatively well-off in economic terms, child under-nutrition is not uncommon, for reasons that can range from low birthweight and poor breastfeeding practices to lack of health care or gender discrimination. This is why a range of complementary interventions are required. It would be pointless to expect a single intervention, whether it is the NREGA or the PDS or the ICDS, to ensure food security.

According to the Supreme Court orders in the PUCL vs Union of India case, every BPL family is entitled to 35 kg of grain, while the proposed Right to Food Bill envisages this at only 25 kg. As a right to food campaigner, do you feel the Bill is equipped to address the issue of hunger in India?

The draft National Food Security Bill is a non-starter as far as eliminating hunger is concerned. It does not add anything to existing food entitlements. For BPL families, it guarantees less than what they are already entitled to under Supreme Court orders. For other families, it guarantees nothing. The draft must go back to the drawing board.

What do you have to say about national media reporting of hunger and malnutrition issues?

I am tempted to say, like Gandhi about Western civilisation, that it would be a good idea.

(This story was published in the print edition of Frontline magazine dated Apr 23, 2010.)

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