As the empowered group of ministers meets again to widen the ambit of the National Food Security Bill and the media rhetoric over the impending fiscal burden continues, I fear that the crux of the problem of food insecurity is being eroded.
The root causes of hunger should ideally be regarded as a failure of human rights and entitlements. Unfortunately, analogous to our country’s bumpy roads, patch-up work rather than long-term concrete solutions seems to be the favoured route in addressing hunger.
Though, in theory, redefining the poverty line and extending social security schemes are welcome moves, I cannot help but sense a state of déjà vu in this latest populist drive. Past measures to improve food access, such as the adoption of a targeted public distribution scheme (TPDS) as well as the introduction of myriad food security programmes, have not made any significant dent on hunger. One-third of adults are said to be undernourished, and close to 50% of children underweight. Alarming stories of hunger deaths from across the country continue to stream in.
These predicaments raise questions about the veracity of the government’s intentions.
First, will an increased access to TPDS, which supplies subsidized rice, wheat and sugar, meet all the dietary needs of individuals particularly when the prices of other food items such as vegetables and fruits remain out of the reach of the poor? Also, extending the scope of the Bill without correcting structural deficiencies in the existing food security policy mechanisms and programmes, such as the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme and the Integrated Child Development Services, seems counterproductive.
The government should rather enact the right to food as a fundamental human right in order to boost physical, economic and social access to food. It should approach food security considerations with rights acknowledgement, transparency, accountability and empowerment concerns.
Though these statements sound idealistic, they are not impossible. Following its recognition of the right to food security in the late 1980s, Brazil could reduce the proportion of malnutritioned people from 12% to 6% of its population today. Its Fome Zero programme is credited to have lowered child malnutrition rates by 73% in the last six years.
At present, India’s food policy framework is centralized at New Delhi under the control of the political elite. India could adopt Brazil’s decentralized and participatory system of co-designing food policies with municipal authorities, civil society and the private sector. This would bring about greater transparency, coordination and accountability in policy design and implementation.
The government must educate the masses about nutrition and rights recognition so that they are empowered to make better use of food security schemes. The survey “Public Distribution System and Other Sources of Household Consumption, 2004-05”, carried out by the National Sample Survey Organisation, found that 51% of rural households possessing less than 0.01ha do not possess ration cards, while the food-for-work programme reaches just 2.7% of rural households.
Rather than adhoc loan waiver schemes, small farm holders who constitute a large majority of the poor in the country need greater financial and technical support. The budgetary support to the agriculture sector has declined considerably compared with the 1980s (in terms of percentage of the gross domestic product), thus affecting the income and entitlements of farmers. Budgetary support would also help boost and diversify India’s food production and bring prices down.
If the disinvestment of public sector units mandates a disinvestment ministry, surely a separate ministry to deal with 230 million hungry mouths in the world’s second fastest growing economy is not too much to ask for. The Brazilian ministry of social development and fight against hunger is a model worth emulating.
United Progressive Alliance chairperson Sonia Gandhi can continue making tall statements about increasing the scope of food subsidy schemes. However, if individuals are deprived of their right to access food, any number of provisions in the food security Bill will be found wanting.
Pranav Nambiar is currently at the University of Bath in the UK. Your comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org