Food banks as a solution

Print edition : September 01, 2001

THE government's failure to address the paradox of endemic mass hunger co-existing with mounting grain stocks has attracted wide attention. Addressing mediapersons in Chennai on August 27, the eminent agricultural scientist and institution-builder, Dr. M.S. Swaminathan, highlighted the role that local communities can play in resolving this paradox through cooperative action by establishing grain and food banks. Urging the establishment of such banks, he said: "Here is the way to address the issue of the grain mountains."

Swaminathan warned that the food stocks with the Union government, already measuring 65 million tonnes - were likely to increase after the next harvest, as a result of a good monsoon. He said that the government, through the Food Corporation of India (FCI), was likely to end up buying more grain because the minimum support price (MSP) was high relative to prevailing market prices. He urged the government to release foodgrains for food-for-work programmes.

Dwelling at length on the concept of grain and food banks, Swaminathan suggested that decentralised Community Grain Banks, governed by a Grain Bank Council and by self-help groups, be organised on the basis of four "major streams of responsibilities". By undertaking these "responsibilities" covering various dimensions of hunger and deprivation these banks would be in a good position to address the problem of endemic hunger in a comprehensive manner, he said. Swaminathan referred to the scores of schemes announced by the governments at the Centre and in the States and said that these constituted a body of "entitlements" that citizens, particularly the poor, could assert as their legitimate right.

The second responsibility of the food banks relate to ecological issues at the local level. Swaminathan said that food resources could be deployed to build and nurture "water banks", control desertification, and encourage afforestation activities. The "ethical" responsibility of food banks required them to deploy food to vulnerable sections such as nursing mothers, infants, pre-school level children, the aged and the infirm, he said. A fourth responsibility of the banks is to be prepared to face emergencies such as cyclones, floods, earthquakes and other natural disasters. Swaminathan said that although decentralisation was vital for the success of the food bank concept, the Union government "can play a catalytic role because it has the stocks of grain." Although the possibility of "local power structures" sabotaging such a venture in India was real, he said he was not pessimistic. However, he cautioned that the scheme "can only succeed if everybody gains, not if there are winners and losers."

The decentralised management of the food banks "will help to improve the delivery of entitlements, reduce transaction and transport costs, eliminate corruption and cater to the twin needs of introducing a life-cycle approach to nutrition security, and meeting the challenge of seasonal fluctuations in nutritional status." Swaminathan referred to the fact that half of the world's malnourished children are in India. Pointing to the fact that 30 per cent of Indian children have low birth weight, and consequently impaired brain development, he asked: "How can India be a knowledge super power when such a vast proportion of our children suffer from impaired brain development?" He suggested the adoption of a holistic action plan to achieve sustainable nutrition security at the level of the individual. This can be done by designing a varied response to the requirements of each age group.

In a paper presented at the recent International Congress on Nutrition in Vienna, Swaminathan said that the "present global surplus of foodgrains is the result of inadequate consumption on the part of the poor, and should not be mistaken as a sign of over-production." Emphasising a "food-based approach to nutrition security", he urged developing countries to achieve "revolutions" in five areas - productivity, quality, income and employment, small farm management and in "enlarging the food basket". Emphasising that the mere availability of food is not enough, Swaminathan argued that "access" to food for the poor needs to be enhanced. He pointed out that even such access was not enough. "Lack of access to clean drinking water, as well as poor environmental hygiene and health infrastructure," he said, "leads to poor assimilation of the food consumed." He also advocated the activation of programmes - similar to the Maharashtra government's Employment Guarantee Scheme - which addressed the issue of "transient hunger".

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