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Targeting hunger

Print edition : May 26, 2001

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A national-level consultation draws up an action plan to improve food security and eliminate hunger.

A NATIONAL Consultation with the theme "Towards Hunger Free India" was organised in New Delhi recently with the broad objective of evolving an action plan and policies that would ensure sustainable food security at the national level and the elimination of poverty-induced chronic hunger at the household level by the end of the Tenth Five-Year Plan, that is by 2007. Two documents - "Food Insecurity Atlas of Rural India", jointly produced by the World Food Programme (WFP) and the Chennai-based M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation (MSSRF), and "Enabling Development - Food Assistance in South Asia", produced by the WFP - were released at the Consultation, which was a collaborative effort of the Planning Commission, the MSSRF, the WFP and the Institute for Human Development. Papers dealing with issues such as sustainable agricultural growth, the public distribution system, foodgrain sufficiency, food availability, food security, food absorption and malnutrition and child rights were presented and discussed.

Many participants questioned the advisability of foodgrain exports in the face of dual standards of agricultural subsidies, withdrawal of quantitative restrictions and the new terms of trade under the World Trade Organisation (WTO). The problem of scarcity and hunger at the household level had to be addressed before deciding to allow foodgrain export, they said. A number of case studies on the public distribution system (PDS) were presented at the Consultation. While the underlying theme was food insecurity in rural India, it was felt that policy should go beyond providing food and address the chronic problem of hunger and poverty. Self-sufficiency in foodgrain production at the macro level meant nothing when households faced a situation of near-starvation.

The Consultation pledged to reduce the number of hungry Indians by August 2007. It drew up a 10-point agenda for action to fulfil this commitment. Food security, the World Food Summit in Rome had declared, "exists when all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life." The summit had set 2015 as the deadline to reduce by half the number of people going to bed hungry every day.

The success or failure of any poverty reduction programme is contingent on the political will of and support from the governments concerned. The Food Insecurity Atlas stated: "The complete story of food insecurity is the story of poverty, discrimination and neglect, of livelihoods, of unhygienic living, of lack of literacy, basic amenities and health care. Ultimately, it is the story of failed global and national governance."

As a participant in the Consultation, the Government of India is in a sense bound by the targets set by it. The government, however, recently allowed the export of rice at a price at which it is distributed to the Below Poverty Line population in India. Several million people, reports the Atlas, have diets deficient in calories. The growth in the number of persons going hungry has outpaced the growth in food production. The production of the staple items of food in the country has reached record levels, but the number of the hungry has been going up since the 1970s. A large number of people consume less than 1,900 kilocalories each day and thus come under the category of those facing food insecurity. The problem was not the availability of food but its affordability and their health status. It is estimated that 13.9 per cent of the people living in rural India have diets deficient in calories. At a time when the government has a buffer stock of 45 million tonnes of foodgrain, rural hunger of this magnitude is inexplicable.

Food insecurity has been seen in three dimensions: availability, access and absorption. Food absorption is an interesting concept as it denotes the ability of an individual to assimilate and absorb the food consumed. This ability depends on his or her state of health.

The production of the staple food, notes the Atlas, reached a peak of 209 million tonnes by 2000 and this was more or less a consequence of the government's emphasis on food availability since the First Five-Year Plan. However, the growth in foodgrain production is slowing down and the per capita availability of staple foods falling. These trends highlight the need to make food production sustainable.

The spread and depth of hunger, according to a discussion paper prepared by the MSSRF, is more in areas where production is deficient and where a large number of people are dependent on casual employment. In States such as Madhya Pradesh and Bihar, the lack of non-agricultural employment opportunities and low wages also contribute to hunger. Periods of drought added to the problem, causing what is called transitory food insecurity. Diversification into areas such as livestock products improved people's access to livelihood, but this happened in very few States.

The paper points out that even as general access to and availability of food remains low, the problem of gender discrimination persists. The adverse sex ratio, as shown in the provisional figures of Census 2001, exemplifies this discrimination. In all the States barring Kerala, the paper notes, the average lifespan of women is low.

According to the paper, strategies to eliminate hunger need to be directed more at the individual level, targeting specific persons or groups of people, than at the household level. Rural health infrastructure, it says, plays an important role in reducing infant and child mortality rates and improving life expectancy and nutritional status, even if livelihood access is not good and calorie consumption is low. Interventions such as the Integrated Child Develop-ment Scheme (ICDS), mid-day meal schemes and immunisation drives are cited as examples. Even in States with appreciable food security and sufficient levels of calorie consumption, the lack of adequate health infrastructure led to high infant and maternal mortality rates.

Infrastructure such as the PDS makes a lot of difference in food-deficit States. The Atlas notes that the rural poor derive 80 per cent of their daily energy and protein requirements from cereals. The non-availability of cereals represents extreme deprivation. In recent years, a sense of fatigue is noticed with regard to the Green Revolution. A fall in yields owing to physical degradation, environmental degradation and climate change is to be expected in the future, the Atlas says. Punjab and Haryana, it says, are exploiting natural resources at a better pace than other States. States such as Bihar and Assam have the potential to use their natural resources better, it says.

Addressing the concluding session, Professor M.S. Swaminathan, Chairman of the MSSRF, said that increasing production was a formidable task and that there was no scope for complacency. In areas where gains had been made in agriculture, it may not be possible to continue making them, he cautioned. The State Land Use Boards needed to be revitalised, taking ecological and marketing factors into account, he said.

THE Consultation made several policy recommendations with decentralisation as the guiding principle and drew up a 10-point action plan for a "freedom from hunger movement". The real challenge, it was agreed, was not only to achieve self-sufficiency in foodgrain production but to make food available to the undernourished and hungry and reduce disparities in distribution. Food insecurity can be removed by, among other things, ensuring sustainable livelihoods, improving literacy (that of women, in particular), providing better health care and access to safe drinking water and ensuring sufficient micro-nutrient intake.

The first step is to identify families and individuals suffering from endemic hunger that is induced by poverty. These are households that have limited or no access to productive assets such as land, cattle and fish ponds. The families in this category survived by taking up unskilled daily wage work. The onus of identifying such families and persons is on the gram sabha. The second step involves providing household entitlement cards to these vulnerable sections. These cards would give information on all government projects aimed to eliminate poverty and hunger. The third concrete measure envisaged is the mobilisation of existing schemes such as the Targeted PDS, ICDS and mid-day meals. The fourth step involves multi-pronged interventions such as fortification of food, administration of oral doses of Vitamin A, iron and fortified salt and cultivation of trees such as amla. The highest priority here should be for the elimination of "hidden hunger". Providing safe drinking water and ensuring environmental hygiene are suggested as the fifth step. Safe drinking water is crucial for the digestion and absorption of food. Every village, it is recommended, should have a plan to treat and recycle solid and liquid wastes.

A significant recommendation has been the immediate strengthening of food-based safety nets, with emphasis on food-for-work programmes.

The Consultation has suggested integrated on-farm and off-farm strategies involving the corporate sector in order to ensure sustainable livelihoods. Some participants, however, expressed their apprehensions about involving the corporate sector. It was generally observed that the present macroeconomic policies were destructive and transnational markets were gaining ground to the detriment of even small enterprises.

Another recommendation made at the Consultation was the widening of the ambit of schemes that were meant for pregnant women and nursing mothers, pre-school children and adolescent girls. It also recommended social mobilisation and education to empower women and prevent practices such as female foeticide and infanticide.

The Consultation recommended that the incidence of children being born with low birth weights be monitored at the panchayat level and its impact on each child's brain development be publicised widely.

Given the frequency of natural disasters and the vulnerability they cause, the Consultation recommended the establishment of grain and water banks at the local level, which could provide assistance at both community and household levels. Additional food assistance, it was suggested, should be provided to disaster prone areas.

The Consultation was cautious about recommending export of foodgrains. In fact, it demanded fairer terms of trade from world trade bodies. As Pedro Medrano, country representative of the WFP, put it thus: "We may have objectives that may not necessarily relate to human needs. We have to see things from the perspective of the poor and the hungry. The question is, how much do you value the life of a person." Medrano said that both the United States and the European Union invested heavily in food programmes and linked agricultural policies to human development. For them, food security was a question of national security, he observed.

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