Thursday, 27 May 2010

letter to UPA chief

Mrs Sonia Gandhi
National Advisory Council,
Government of India, New Delhi

Make Food Security Bill effective to remove hunger

Dear Madam,

Notwithstanding the claims of high rate of economic growth, India remains host to largest population of the hungry and malnourished people in the world. In 2009, IFPRI ranked India 66th in Global Hunger Index for 88 countries. UNICEF tells us that more than 5000 children die every day in India from malnourishment. Our own economist Dr Arjun Sengupta after detailed study concluded that more than three-fourth of Indian population survives on less than Rs. 20/- a day, which is hardly sufficient to buy enough food for one in these high inflation days.

Unfortunately, the hunger and starvation prevalent in Indian villages are not the outcome of any famine or lack of food production, but insensitive governance and dismal distribution. India remains one of the highest producers of foodgrains and has millions of tonnes of foodgrains stored while its villagers are not able to grow or buy enough food to keep themselves and their families hunger free.

Therefore, instead of making cosmetic changes in the existing policies and programmes, a very serious, sustained and effective mechanism is required to remove hunger from the face of India. It can only be hoped that the proposed National Food Security Bill to ensure Right to Food as the basic human right is an effort in the right direction. But considering the level of debate within and outside the government circles, it is imperative for the concerned citizens of this country to take a stock of the proposal and suggest critical changes in the Bill to achieve the desired results.

The UPA’s concern towards millions of hungry and starved masses of this country is praiseworthy. The proposal for a National Food Security Bill to ensure that every poor family gets a minimum of 35 kg of foodgrains at Rs 3/kg is also good in intention. But, the question is: Can we remove hunger by distributing cheap ration among poor through PDS? The answer, I am afraid, is a big NO.

A piece of legislation that enshrines Right to Food as the basic human right is not going to make any difference to those who live in hunger and penury, and to the millions who are added to this dreaded list year after year. Merely replicating the Public Distribution System (PDS) in a new avatar will not be sufficient to lift people out of hunger. If the PDS had been even partially effective, India shouldn’t be having the largest population of hungry in the world. There is no reason why the state of Punjab, for example, the best performing state in terms of food production, should be ranked below Gabon, Honduras and Vietnam in the Global Hunger Index.

Hunger needs more than PDS ration, and that is where we are failing to focus on.
Unfortunately, the Right to Food campaign has failed to see beyond the entitlements. Unless we remove the structural causes that acerbate hunger, and most of these relate to agriculture and management of natural resources, India would not be able to make any significant difference in reducing hunger.

We can not talk about hunger in isolation without understanding the destruction of agriculture being wrought by World Trade Organisation (WTO) and the Free Trade Agreements (FTAs). We can never remove hunger by promoting GM crops, precision farming, contact farming, food retail and future trading. Hunger has direct relationship with the neo-liberal economic policies and without changing the course of economic development, our efforts to defeat hunger and deprivation will fall flat.

Failure of delivery system

The critical question we need to ask ourselves is that why should there be hunger in villages which produce bountiful foodgrains, year after year.  

Hunger is basically outcome of our wrong policies and our inability to accept that the delivery system is not delivering. At present almost 20 government programmes exist to fight hunger and to provide food and nutritional security. These programs run by various Ministries range from Mid-day Meal Programme to National Food Security Mission, and Antyodaya Anna Yojna to Annapoorna Yojna.

However, despite such impressive programmes already running, and increased budget allocation for these every year, the poor still go hungry. The number of hungry and impoverished has increased with every passing year.

Therefore, to add another couple of schemes to the existing lot is certainly not going to make it any better for the hungry. Nor a mere tinkering of the approach will help. Replacing the ration cards for the PDS allocations with food stamps is one such misplaced initiative. If we persist with such borrowed ideas, hunger will continue to multiply.

Knowing that the existing programmes and projects have failed to make any appreciable dent, it is high time the opportunity provided by the proposed National Food Security Act be utilised in a realistic manner. It is a great opportunity, and we will let down the nation if we fail to bring about a radical overhaul of the existing approach to fight hunger.

Separate Hunger Line from Poverty line

First and foremost, the time has come to draw a realistic poverty line. The Tendulkar Committee has suggested that 37 per cent of our population is living in poverty. Arjun Sengupta Committee had said that 77 per cent of the population (or 836 million people) is able to spend not more than Rs 20/day. Justice D P Wadhwa Committee has now recommended that anyone earning less than Rs 100 a day should be considered below the poverty line. At present, the poverty line hovers around Rs 14 a day, which we all know is merely an apology.

But the tragedy is that none of the numerous committees, economic surveys and even the Supreme Court’s advisory body on Right to Food had highlighted the dire need to change the poverty line to a more meaningful figure if the issue of growing hunger has to be nipped in the bud.

Knowing that India has one of the most stringent poverty line in the world, the fault begins by accepting the faulty projections. It doesn't help in continuing with faulty estimates. Therefore, India should have two lines demarcating the percentage of absolute hungry and malnourished from those who are not so hungry. The Suresh Tendulkar Committee suggestion of 37 per cent should be taken as the new Hunger line, which needs low-cost food grains as an emergency entitlement. In addition, the Arjun Sengupta committee's cut-off at 77 per cent should be the new Poverty line.

Once we have set these criteria, the approach for tackling absolute hunger and poverty would be different. 

Zero Hunger

Like in Brazil, the time has come for India to formulate a Zero Hunger programme. This should aim at a differential approach. Why people should go hungry in the villages, which produce enough food for the country year after year. These villages have to be made hunger-free by adopting a community-based localised food grain bank scheme.

In the urban centres and the food deficit areas, a universal public distribution system is required. The existing PDS system also requires to be overhauled. Also, there is a dire need to involve social and religious organisations in food distribution. They have done a remarkable job in cities like Bangalore, and there are lessons to be imbibed.

Creating adequate employment opportunities and promoting sustainable livelihoods by involving the village communities has to be woven into any long-term food security plan. Better health care facilities, access to safe drinking water and sufficient micro-nutrient intake will ensure that food is properly absorbed. To provide nutritional security to poor people, the food allocation should also include nutritious millets (and other coarse cereals) and pulses, in addition to wheat and rice.

Arranging Finances to Feed Everyone

It is often argued that the government cannot foot the bill for feeding each and every Indian. This is far from true. Estimates have shown that the country would require 60 million tonnes of foodgrains (@35 kg per family) if it follows a Universal Public Distribution System. In other words, Rs. 1.10 lakh crore is required to feed the nation for a year.

However, the government gives an impression that the country does not have the money to feed the hungry. Nothing can be further away from truth. If the government could provide Rs. 3.5 lakh crore as economic stimulus to the industry, and also provide for Rs. 5 lakh crore as revenue foregone in the 2010-11 fiscal, as sops and tax concessions to the industry and business, how can the government say it has no money.

Government can collect at least Rs. 3 lakh crore from its forgone revenues to provide resources for feeding the hungry, and also for ensuring assured supply of safe drinking water plus sanitation.

Overhaul Policies

The poor and hungry have lived in a dark abyss for over 60 years now, waiting endlessly for their daily morsel of grain. India’s new draft Food Security Bill, with its underlying promise of food-for-all, surely provides a ray of hope for the hungry millions. It could be a new beginning, if enacted properly, and could turn the appalling hunger in India into history.

But it would not be possible, unless policy changes are introduced to put the emphasis on long-term sustainable farming, and to stop land acquisitions and privatisation of natural resources. We need policies that ensure food for all for all times to come. This is what constitutes inclusive growth. A hungry population is a great economic loss resulting from the inability of the manpower to undertake economic activities.

The proposed National Food Security Act cannot be a stand-alone activity. It has to be integrated with various other programmes and policy initiatives to ensure that hunger becomes history. To achieve this objective, the food security plan should essentially aim at adopting a five-point approach:

Focus on Agriculture and Rural Development
A combination of structural policies aimed at the real causes of hunger and poverty, specific policies to meet the household needs for long-term access to food and nutrition, and local policies based on local needs that keep the concept of sustainable livelihoods in focus. For instance, all policies should be aimed at reversing the rural-urban migration. The more migration escalates, the more urban centres will be chocked, and the greater the burden on government support for fighting hunger. Agriculture and rural development remains the best defence against the growing threat of naxalism.

Sustainable livelihoods
In a country where agriculture is the mainstay of the economy, all efforts must be directed towards strengthening low external input sustainable agricultural practices. There is an urgent need to revitalise the natural resource base, restore groundwater levels, and provide higher incomes to farmers. A monthly take-home income package based on land holdings has to be worked out for farmers. The NREGA has to be integrated with agriculture, and the interest on micro-credit for the poorest of the poor has to be brought down to 4 per cent from the existing 20-48 per cent.

Public Distribution System
There is an urgent need to dismantle the PDS except for the Antyodya families. The present classification of BPL and APL (‘below poverty levels’ and ‘above poverty levels’) needs to be done away with. The recommendation of the National Commission on Enterprise in the Unorganised Sector (NCEUS), which states that 836 million people in India spend less than Rs 20 a day, should be the criteria for a meaningful food-for-all programme.

Foodgrain Banks
The dismantling of the Public Distribution System has to be followed by the setting up of foodgrain banks at the village and taluka level. Any long-term food security plan cannot remain sustainable unless the poor and hungry become partners in the fight against hunger. There are ample examples of successful models of traditional grain banks (for instance, the famed gola system in Bihar), which need to be replicated through a nationwide programme involving self-help groups and NGOs. Programmes and projects must be drawn up to make foodgrain banks sustainable over the long-term and viable without government support in a couple of years, involving charitable institutions, religious bodies, self-help groups (SHGs) and the non-profit organizations to ensure speedy implementation.

International commitments
Global commitments and neoliberal economic policies should not be allowed to interfere with the food security plan. The World Trade Organisation (WTO) agreements, the Free Trade Agreements (FTAs) and various bilateral trade deals should not be allowed to displace farming communities and play havoc with national food security. For instance, India cannot compromise agriculture in the ongoing Doha Round of negotiations in the WTO which will allow cheaper and subsidised imports. Importing food for a country like India is like importing unemployment, thereby increasing the number of hungry.
I am hopeful that if the suggestions made here are incorporated in the proposed National Food Security Bill, India will be able to make hunger a part of its history.

With kind regards,
Yours sincerely,

Devinder Sharma
Food and Trade Policy Analyst
C-66, Sector- 33, NOIDA (UP) 

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