Tackling hunger

Print edition : January 14, 2005

Towards Hunger Free India - From Vision to Action, edited by M. S. Swaminathan and Pedro Medrano; EastWest Books, Chennai, 2004; pages 470, Rs.600

HUNGER in a land that has millions of tonnes of foodgrains held as surplus stock? If that appears strange, consider the following: "More than 300 million people in India are affected by one or more micronutrient deficiencies, and about 35 per cent of the world's malnourished children live in India"; "Head count ratios of nutrient deprivation are as high as 44 per cent, and that of calorie deprivation indicate that about 75 per cent of rural India does not consume adequate calories"; "In the last five decades, the mortality rate has come down by 50 per cent and the fertility rate by 40 per cent, but the reduction in under-nutrition is only 20 per cent".

Such are the manifestations of hunger in our country. Why is it so? What can be and should be done to get rid of the scourge? These are the issues dealt with in this volume. It consists of the proceedings of a consultation organised jointly by the World Food Programme of the United Nations, the M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation and the Food and Agricultural Organisation in New Delhi in April 2003. The keynote address by K.C. Pant, then Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission, a special address by Dr. M.S. Swaminathan and an introduction by the two editors precede the 21 technical papers in the volume.

At the time of Independence, point out the contributors to the volume, the country was faced with an overall food scarcity, which continued until the mid-1970s. The problem was addressed by importing foodgrains - an average of about four million tonnes per annum - and through rationing. Scarcity conditions began to disappear thanks to the Green Revolution, and the foodgrains position has been generally satisfactory since then except during the periodic drought years. Indeed, in recent years the problem has been one of "abundance", with a bulging surplus stock in the granaries of the government. The surplus stocks reached a high level of 63 million tonnes in July 2002, which was a world record level and equal to about 30 per cent of the annual production of the period.

But this is a description at the aggregate or macro level. The paradox is that this semblance of surplus and abundance at that level is accompanied by different forms of hunger at the micro level - of households and individuals within households. The author of the first technical paper puts it thus: "Only 4 decades ago, India was struggling to meet the food requirements of 440 million people. Presently, with a population of 1 billion, it has surplus food stocks. Yet many millions in India go hungry every night - over one half of women, and 60 per cent of children in India are anaemic" (page 39).

The problem of hunger, therefore, is not one of starvation (although even that has not been fully eliminated) but essentially one of widespread malnutrition, which is a kind of hidden hunger. To deal with it, the Tenth Five-Year Plan (2002-07) has envisaged a paradigm shift from household food security and freedom from hunger to nutrition security for the family and the individual. And a Nutrition Mission headed by the Prime Minister has been formed to coordinate and monitor the National Nutrition Policy. Nutrition security is described as a situation where all people have sufficient intake of food over a prolonged period relative to his/her needs for normal growth and physical development, body maintenance and the performance of daily activities. To achieve this objective substantially by 2007 is what the national policy aims at.

It is not an easy task though. One reason for it is what one of the contributors aptly describes as the "vicious cycle of hunger". He describes it thus: "The vicious cycle of hunger begins with low birth weight babies born in food deficient homes, and who remain undernourished throughout childhood and are unable to develop their mental and physical capacities to even average levels. Upon reaching adulthood, they are stunted, wasted and inadequately skilled, and therefore forced to sell their only asset, physical labour, at any available wage rate. As may be expected, the market would pay only the lowest possible wages for such unskilled labour thus extending the initial food shortage-poverty scenario into a lifelong one" (page 351).

A malnourished child being weighed in Nandurbar, Maharashtra. The problem of hunger in India is essentially one of widespread malnutrition, which is a kind of hidden hunger.-VIVEK BENDRE

It follows that a life-cycle approach is needed to ensure a hunger-free country - starting with conception, and going onto infancy, childhood, adolescence, adulthood, reproduction, and old age, recognising the specific needs of each one of these stages. Deciding priorities in this sort of a situation is not easy, but cannot be evaded. Since both physical and mental development of a child depends to a great deal on the intrauterine period, nutritional requirements of pregnant women should receive top priority followed by the equally crucial needs of children up to the ages of two or three. For both pregnant women and young children the need is not only for calories, but also for protein and appropriate vitamins. Safe drinking water and hygienic living conditions are also essential. Apart from ensuring that adequate and appropriate grain, vegetables, fruits and other items are accessible to large numbers of people, especially women in the rural and urban areas, it is important to ensure that they have knowledge about the nutritional contents of these items. People must also come to have sufficient knowledge about health and hygiene.

Special mention may be made about drinking water because both the quantity and quality of water are important determinants of health for children. In this connection one of the papers quotes a recent United Nations evaluation which places India 133rd in 180 countries studied in terms of the quantity of drinking water available for its people, while in the matter of quality of water it has been ranked 120 among 122 countries (page 233).

The requirements of a hunger-free state are, thus, manifold and demanding. Some papers in the volume critically evaluate measures taken up to achieve the objective. The public distribution of foodgrains is one of them. It is an attempt to make available stipulated quantities of foodgrains, mainly to low-income groups, at subsidised rates. But the thousands of crores of rupees spent as food subsidy do not go entirely or mainly to those who deserve it. One of the authors says: "The bulk of the food subsidy benefits relatively well-off farmers, the employees of the FCI, the ration-shop dealers, other intermediaries, and poor consumers of other countries - as exports are heavily subsidised" (page 146). In the late 1990s an attempt was made to ensure that subsidy in fact benefits those who deserve it. According to what came to be known as the Targeted Public Distribution System (TPDS), larger quantities of foodgrains were made available at a more subsidised price to those below the poverty line (BPL) than to those above the poverty line (APL).

But even this attempt has its limitations. The problem with BPL consumers frequently is that they cannot afford to buy a month's supply in one instalment, which is what the TPDS insists on. Partly because of this and partly because the TPDS issue price is not much below the market price, the offtake from the PDS has tended to come down. Also, if the attempt really is to deal with hunger and malnutrition the distinction between BPL and APL is not particularly tenable because many in the APL group are also calorie-deficient and malnourished.

Many other schemes to tackle the problem of hunger directly and indirectly - such as Integrated Child Development Services, Mid-Day Meal schemes, the National Old Age Pension Scheme, foodgrains-based wage employment schemes, and many more - also have their limitations.

Taking all these aspects into account Dr. M.S. Swaminathan, in the concluding paper, indicates "A Road Map for Freedom from Hunger". The agenda consists of shifting attention to individuals such as pregnant women and low-birth-weight children; taking a life-cycle approach, launching a national literacy movement to spread awareness about issues relating to food safety, health and hygiene; and providing each family with an entitlement card giving information on various government projects that they can have access to. The agenda also includes food-for-work as the best vehicle of delivery, asset-building and community development, strengthening elected local bodies to prepare micro-level action plans and continued increase in food production and agricultural productivity.

With so much to be attempted, much along the lines already tried out, it is doubtful whether a demanding new package will succeed in reaching the target by 2007. It has been repeatedly shown that specifically targeted policies are the most difficult to implement. And when the trend is to rely increasingly on the "impersonal" forces of the market, how will the shift to individual needs, specifically the needs of individuals who do not have much resource power, enter into the policy agenda? It must be pointed out, too, that while the papers in the volume are rich in the exposition of the nature and features of hidden hunger, there is hardly any attempt to examine the structural factors that make millions of people continue in a state of chronic food deficiency, both quantitative and qualitative. Without tackling those factors, it is difficult to achieve a hunger-free India.

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