Addressing India’s hunger gap

THE DEVELOPMENT DEBATE

The word ‘hunger’ does not appear in the 12th Plan Approach Paper even once, whereas according to the latest Global Hunger Index Report, India continues to be in the category of those nations where hunger is ‘alarming’. What is worse, India is one of the three countries where the hunger index between 1996 and 2011 has gone up from 22.9 to 23.7, while 78 out of the 81 developing countries studied, including Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh, Vietnam, Kenya, Nigeria, Myanmar, Uganda, Zimbabwe and Malawi, have all succeeded in improving their scores.

According to the central government’s Economic Survey, foodgrain production in India has gone down from 208 kg per annum per capita in 1996-97 to 186 kg in 2009-10, a decline of 11%. From the reduced production, India has been exporting on average 7 million tonnes of cereals per annum, causing availability to decline further by 15% from 510 gm per day per capita in 1991 to 436 gm in 2008.

File photo of a poor family, Indranil Bhoumik Mint
Ironically, despite falling per capita foodgrain production in the period 1991-2010, procurement of cereals on government account has gone up, suggesting a decline in poor people’s consumption and their purchasing power. This may have happened because of structural imbalances (high minimum support price or MSP, rising capital intensity, lack of land reforms, failure of poverty alleviation programmes, no new technological breakthrough in agriculture, etc.) created in the economy, as well as due to production problems in less endowed regions (erratic rainfall, soil erosion and water run-off, lack of access to credit and markets, poor communications) which led to the dangerous situation of huge surpluses in Food Corporation of India (FCI) godowns since 2008 coupled with widespread hunger. Another factor escalating hunger is spiralling food prices, despite (or perhaps because of) rotting food stocks in government godowns.
The policy approach to agriculture since the 1990s has been to secure increased production through subsidies on inputs such as power, water and fertilizer, and by increasing the MSP rather than through building new capital assets in irrigation, power and rural infrastructure in less endowed regions. This has shifted the production base from low-cost regions to high-cost ones, causing an increase in the cost of production, regional imbalance, and an increase in the burden of storage and transport of foodgrains.

The equity, efficiency, and sustainability of the current approach are questionable. Subsidies do not improve income distribution or the demand for labour. The boost in output from subsidy-stimulated use of fertilizer, pesticides and water has the potential to damage aquifers and soils – an environmentally unsustainable approach that may partly explain the rising costs and slowing growth and productivity in agriculture, notably in Punjab and Haryana. Instead of promoting low-cost options that have a higher capital-output ratio, present policies have resulted in excessive use of capital on the farms.

Major food related programmes, such as the Public Distribution System (PDS) and Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) are plagued by corruption, leakages, errors in selection, procedural delays, poor allocations and little accountability. They also tend to discriminate against and exclude those who most need them, by social barriers of gender, age, caste, and disability; and state hostility to poor urban migrants, street and slum residents, dispersed hamlets, and unorganised workers such as hawkers. In Rangpur Pahadi, a slum area just a few kilometres away from Vasant Kunj in Delhi, people living since 1980 have not been given a voter ID card or a ration card. Thus their very existence is denied by the Delhi government!

The practice of bogus reporting is so widely prevalent in all the states, presumably with the connivance of senior officers, that the overall percentage of malnourished children under three years of age, according to central government data, is 8%, with only 1% children severely malnourished, as against 46% reported by National Family Health Survey (NFHS-3), with 17% being severely malnourished. Field officials are thus able to escape from any sense of accountability for reducing malnutrition and hunger.

A recent evaluation of ICDS in Gorakhpur, Uttar Pradesh, by the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) showed that 63% of food and funds are misappropriated. In place of cooked food as directed by the Supreme Court, manufactured ready-to-eat food with only 100 calories is given to children, as against the norm of 300 calories.

More than half of the poor either have no card or have been given above poverty line cards, and are thus excluded from the below poverty line (BPL) benefits. These must presumably be the most poor tribal groups, women-headed households and people living in remote hamlets where administration does not reach. Thus, the people most deserving of government help are deprived of such assistance. On the other hand, almost 60% of the BPL or Antyodaya cards have been given to households belonging to the non-poor category. It is doubtful that the current Socio-Economic Caste Census will be able to weed out these errors of exclusion and inclusion.

The food ministry should have a greater sense of ownership of PDS and improve its oversight mechanisms. For instance, it should start an annual impact study of the PDS, especially in the poorer states. It is willing to spend Rs. 60,000 crore on the programme but not willing to spend even Rs. 60 lakh on monitoring and evaluation of the programme. That means spending approximately one rupee out of every one lakh rupees on monitoring. But the ministry has not conducted a single multi-disciplinary third-party objective evaluation of PDS in the last eight years.

Further, the poorest 150 districts (which will cover most of the tribal majority areas in central India) should have universal PDS. In no case should export be permitted. If basmati is to be exported, equal amount of ordinary rice must be imported.

Large-scale substitution of PDS by direct cash transfers (DCT) is not feasible, as foodgrains purchased from the farmers through MSP mechanism need an outlet for distribution. Besides, DCT needs a good banking structure, a functional registration system and widespread use of debit cards. At best, it could be tried on a pilot basis in a few poor localities of metropolitan cities.

India requires a significant increase of targeted investments in nutrition programmes, clinics, disease control, irrigation, rural electrification, rural roads, and sanitation, accompanied by systemic reforms that will overhaul the present system of service delivery, including issues of control and oversight. This in turn requires improving the governance, productivity and accountability of government machinery.

N.C. Saxena is a member of the National Advisory Council. He has worked as Secretary, Planning Commission (1999-2002) and Secretary, Rural Development (1997-99).

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