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'The situation is extraordinary'

Print edition : May 27, 2000 T+T-

Food-for-work has been a time-tested means of combating drought and famine around the world. The World Food Programme (WFP), the food-aid arm of the United Nations, has been active in Orissa since the cyclone hit the State in October 1999. Pedro Alfonso Medrano Rojas, Representative of the WFP and Country Director and Regional Manager of its South Asian Regional Cluster, which includes India, Bhutan, Nepal and Sri Lanka, says that food-for-work programmes can be just as effective in drought-affected States such as Rajasthan and Gujarat as in Orissa in reconstructing the economy in order to protect and sustain livelihoods. Between 1995 and 1998, Pedro Medrano was the chairman of the Committee on World Food Security and was a key fi gure in the negotiations that resulted in the adoption of the Rome Declaration on food security and the World Food Summit Plan of Action in 1996. He assumed his present office in January 1999. Excerpts from a telephonic interview he gave V. Sridhar from New Delhi.

The two situations are completely different. Orissa has suffered something that India has never experienced before. In Rajasthan and Gujarat too the drought is unprecedented. We are worried, particularly about women, children and the poor. The situation is precarious in all the three States.

The WFP has two tasks. First, it is committed to undertaking efforts to protect the minimum nutritional intake of the most vulnerable sections. This component is aimed at delivering supplementary feeding for mothers and children.

The WFP's other component aims to restore the livelihoods of the people by restoring the assets that have been destroyed. People have lost their cattle; agricultural activity has been affected adversely; and incomes have collapsed.

Our task is to provide at least three months of supplementary food and also to deploy food for work programmes for that duration so that people can get employment.

How is food security to be guaranteed for the population in the affected areas in Orissa?

We are supporting the efforts of the government and the community at reconstruction. Ours is not an independent, parallel programme. We deliver through existing government-run programmes, such as the Integrated Child Development Scheme (ICDS). Our projec ts to restore the forest cover in Orissa, for instance, are implemented through the State Forest Department. Our partners are either the government or NGOs.

What is your assessment of the situation in the three States?

In Orissa about 15 million people have been affected by the cyclone. That is about the size of the Netherlands. About 25 million people in Rajasthan and a similar number in Gujarat have been affected by the drought. That is about the size of Italy or Fra nce. The dimensions of the two situations are obviously immense. The priority in Orissa is to provide nutritional support to the most vulnerable.

Given the serious danger to food security, how do you view the performance of the Public Distribution System (PDS) in India and the hike in the prices of food distributed through it?

The PDS, in normal circumstances, covers about 20 per cent of the population. People may have been able to pay Rs.6.50 a kg of rice previously, but not in this situation. For one year from now we have had to support this section of the population. Howeve r, our intervention is independent of the PDS.

The PDS is one of the most important instruments of the government. The Indian PDS is one of the largest in the world. The problem is that it is not enough. In Orissa, Gujarat and Rajasthan the situation is extraordinary. Investments are needed at the ho usehold levels. We need to concentrate at the household and village level. Water harvesting has to be done and check dams and other rural assets have to be built by the communities. In Gujarat and Rajasthan, where the communities were in charge of water collection, the drought has not been as severe. If communities are not involved or supported, the problem is never going to be solved. Even in forestry programmes, unless local communities are given the main role of preserving them, they will never be pr otected.