Debating India


The fight against hunger

Friday 12 March 2004, by MURALIDHARAN*Sukumar

The National Food Security Summit held in New Delhi calls upon political parties to accord high priority to food security with a view to eradicating chronic hunger by 2007.

THE National Food Security summit, scheduled over three days in the first week of February in Delhi, was planned as an occasion to mobilise opinion across the political spectrum in the cause of a programme that would ensure the end of hunger and chronic undernourishment by 2007. In the event, it was overtaken by political concerns of a more partisan character, with the beginning of frenetic preparations to fight national elections whose central themes would be whether or not the country is really "shining" and its people really are "feeling good".

The organisers of the summit - the M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation (MSSRF) and the World Food Programme (WFP) - duly truncated the event to two days in order to adjust to the mood of distraction among the political parties. But in submitting the "Summit Statement" to the public, the chairman of the MSSRF, Prof. M.S. Swaminathan, placed on record his expectation that following the elections, the food security imperative would gain cross-party political recognition, paving the way for the adoption of a programme of action that would have a realistic chance of meeting the 2007 deadline.

The scenario is rife with seeming contradictions. Columbia University economist Jeffrey Sachs, who delivered the Coromandel lecture at the summit, seemed implicitly to endorse the production-oriented approach towards food security. The most consequential invention of the 20th century, he said, could well have been the Haber-Bosch process, which allowed the fixing of atmospheric nitrogen in inorganic chemicals that could, in turn, be applied on the soil to enhance its fertility. Without this breakthrough in technology, global food supplies would simply not have been capable of sustaining an increase in world population from one billion at the beginning of the century, to six billion at its end.

Sachs pointed out though, that there are serious gaps in the argument that productivity enhancement serves to bring about food security. India had ridden the wave of the "green revolution" to achieve a degree of surplus in certain crucial food crops. In this respect, it stood on a different footing from much of Africa, which had missed out on the green revolution. Yet, India remained home to over a quarter of the world’s chronically undernourished population.

A recent report of the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO), indicates that over a fifth of India’s population still suffers from chronic hunger. Indeed, India is one among 17 countries where the number of the undernourished increased substantially in the second half of the 1990s.Tracking the incidence of hunger in India over three reference periods - 1990-92, 1995-97 and 1999-2001 - the FAO plots an initial decline from 214.5 million to 194.7 million, before a near total reversal of all gains pushed up the number of the undernourished to 213.7 million.

In partial recognition of these grim realities, the Planning Commission has proposed that the Tenth Five Year Plan could shift the focus of food policy from aggregate, quantitative figures at the national level, to an individual-oriented, life-cycle based notion of nutritional adequacy and security. The summit endorsed this switch of emphasis and urged that "a life-cycle approach to nutrition interventions" be adopted. A life-cycle approach would focus especially on the stages that are most vital for ensuring healthy growth: pregnancy and lactation in the case of women, and early infancy, pre-school years, and the school-going years in the case of the entire population.

This apart, there is a need to enhance farm productivity "in perpetuity (and) without ecological harm". The irrationalities of the first Green Revolution, which often led to ecological damage and land degradation through excess use of fertilizer and the misapplication of water resources, are to be remedied and a strategic switch effected to more ecologically benign practices. A direct attack on poverty and hunger is then proposed through "improving the purchasing power" of the "socially and economically under-privileged sections of society".

The elimination of hunger also calls for a geographical focus on arid-zone and rain-fed agriculture. In most cases, this approach would dovetail with a direct approach towards the poorer sections, through a programme of promoting producer cooperatives that would enable more efficient and effective backward linkages towards input and technology sources and forward linkages towards remunerative markets.

UNDERLYING all these prescriptions in the recommendations of the summit, of course, is the perceived imperative of population stabilisation. An Atlas of the Sustainability of Food Security, which was released on the occasion, provides a more detailed account of the consequences of population growth, focussing especially on the ecological dimensions. But, if there is any lesson to be drawn from the aggregate of factors listed in the Atlas that have a bearing on population growth rate, it is that this is not a parameter that is amenable to direct control. In fact, chronic food and livelihood insecurity are known to provide a strong incentive for high reproductive behaviour, trapping the poor in a vicious cycle. Breaking this cycle may be a matter of direct empowerment of the poor through assets and assured sources of income.

A number of indices are employed in the Atlas to arrive at a composite index of the sustainability of food security. These include the net area sown, food production per capita, forest cover, availability of surface and groundwater, relative proportion of land degradation, extent of crop diversification, proportion of land sown with leguminous crops which help in fixing nitrogen, the average size of landholdings, the incidence of landless labour and various others. The composite index reveals that the food supply and distribution could be categorised as "extremely unsustainable" in one state, Nagaland. The situation in Bihar, Jharkhand, Orissa and Tamil Nadu feature in the "unsustainable" category. Among the agriculturally dynamic States, Punjab, Haryana feature alongside Jammu and Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh, Rajasthan and Maharashtra in the "moderately unsustainable" category. Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, because of the fairly widespread prevalence of subsistence-oriented agriculture, relatively undisturbed by commercialisation and the market calculus, are classified in the "sustainable" category. The rest are in what is called "moderately sustainable" category.

The bleak conclusion is that no State is free of problems, though each State provides room for optimism on particular kinds of policy actions that could mitigate the situation. The improvements in health care achieved in Assam and Himachal Pradesh, the food affordability achieved in Jammu and Kashmir, for instance, offer pointers to the policy actions that could enhance overall welfare in other States. From Kerala and Karnataka come the lesson that food security status can be improved through the direct provision of nutritional entitlements to all sections.

Underlying all these approaches, perhaps, is the common element of economic empowerment. This requires not merely the restoration of the shrinking asset bases of most of the vulnerable people, but the restitution of their rights to common property resources which have been eroded and encroached upon by commercialisation. The food security summit stops short of making this an explicit requirement of public policy. But the large-scale reform of property institutions is an unstated imperative in their approach. The wave of democratic decentralisation of the 1990s may have created a greater degree of political empowerment at the local level. But the agenda remains unfinished while the ownership of the economic assets base remains skewed against the poor.

See online : Frontline


in Frontline, volume 21 - Issue 05, February 28 - March 12, 2004.

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